Tocqueville on Christianity and American Democracy – C. Holloway

Tocqueville on Christianity and American Democracy

Carson Holloway, Ph.D.


    In his monumental study Democracy in America, Alexis de Tocqueville explained why religion, though in some ways a pre-modern and pre-democratic phenomenon, is nevertheless essential to the health of modern democracy and the preservation of freedom. For Tocqueville, political freedom requires an unshakeable moral foundation that only religion can supply. Freedom can be destroyed by democracy’s tendency to foster excessive individualism, materialism, and the tyranny of the majority. Only religion, Tocqueville contends, can successfully counter these dangerous tendencies by teaching men that they are obligated to respect themselves and to respect the rights of others. Changes in American society since Tocqueville’s time do not render his teaching about the political importance of religion irrelevant. They rather invite us to adapt his teaching to our own circumstances so as to preserve freedom in our own time.

In recent years, Americans have lost sight of religion’s positive contribution to creating and sustaining our democracy. We have not forgotten religion’s relevance to our political life; we are continually reminded of that by our ongoing debates about the proper scope of religious freedom. These debates, however, treat religion more as a private preference than a public good. They concern how much liberty private individuals and groups should have in exercising their religious beliefs. These debates therefore do little to remind us of how religion can act as a unifying social force, a set of common beliefs that are essential to maintaining our democratic way of life.

In forgetting religion’s role as a public institution, we also have lost contact with an old and venerable tradition of political philosophy. Even the great non-theological thinkers in the history of Western political thought—those who considered religion not from the standpoint of the religious teacher concerned with the salvation of souls but from the perspective of the statesman concerned with protecting the common good—tell us that religion is necessary to a healthy political community. This is the teaching of the classical founders of that tradition, such as Plato and Aristotle. It is also the teaching of modern figures such as Edmund Burke and John Locke, who emphasized that free government could not be maintained in the absence of religion.

Coming closer to home, this is also the view held by the American Founders. They intended to institute a secular government but insisted that it required a religious foundation. For example, in his Farewell Address, George Washington reminded his countrymen that “religion and morality” are the “firmest props of the duties of men and citizens” and therefore are “indispensable supports” of “the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity.” He added, moreover, that morality depends on religion: “[R]eason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.” Religion, he thus suggested, is necessary to the preservation of “free government.”[1]

In seeking to renew our understanding of religion’s contribution to freedom, we can turn to no better teacher than Alexis de Tocqueville. Tocqueville explained more thoroughly than anyone else why religion, though in some ways a pre-modern and pre-democratic phenomenon, is nevertheless essential to the health of modern democracy. This is one of the key themes of his monumental study, Democracy in America.

Modern democratic freedom, Tocqueville argues, developed as a result of Christianity’s influence on European civilization, and more particularly as a result of Puritanism’s influence on American civilization. This link is not accidental: Political freedom requires an unshakeable moral foundation that only religion can supply. Moreover, religion is necessary not only to democracy’s emergence, but also to its preservation. Democracy fosters intellectual and moral habits that can be deadly to freedom: the tyranny of the majority, individualism, materialism, and democratic despotism. American Christianity acts as a corrective to these perilous democratic tendencies.

Accordingly, Tocqueville concludes, the preservation of America’s traditional religion is one of the most important tasks of democratic statesmanship. Indeed, he goes so far as to say that religion “should be considered the first” of America’s “political institutions” and even that it is necessary for Americans to “maintain Christianity…at all cost.”[2]

To summarize Tocqueville’s teaching thus is to be reminded of how much America has changed since he examined it, and this in turn raises the question whether Tocqueville’s teaching is any longer relevant to us. Christianity today possesses nothing like the public moral authority that it had in the 1830s. Today’s America is less religious overall than Tocqueville’s America, and religious Americans today are more diverse in their religious beliefs than were the Americans of Tocqueville’s day.

These changes, however, do not render Tocqueville’s account irrelevant. He wrote not as a religious teacher aiming to propagate a particular faith, but instead as a political analyst interested in the kind of religious beliefs necessary to uphold freedom and democracy. Moreover, Tocqueville saw democracy’s dynamism and understood its tendency to change the country’s religious landscape.

Accordingly, Tocqueville wrote not with a view to preserving completely intact a particular religion, but instead to discover the religious essentials of the free society and to explain how and to what extent they can be preserved. His thought therefore invites us not to a fruitless nostalgia for an unrecoverable past, but instead to an intelligent application of the lessons of the past to the obligations of the present—especially our obligation to preserve and pass on the free society that we have inherited.

Christianity and the Origins of American Democracy

Tocqueville opens Democracy in America by reminding us of something that we now tend to forget: The freedom we cherish rests upon religious foundations. Modern democracy could not have emerged but for the influence of Christianity on the Western world. Tocqueville emphasizes the historical rise of equality as both an idea and a social fact. This “revolution,” however, cannot be observed in the world at large, but is instead characteristic of “all the Christian universe.” “Conditions are more equal among Christians in our day,” Tocqueville contends, “than they have ever been in any time or any country in the world.”[3]

The progress of equality, Tocqueville argues, was driven both by Christianity’s influence on society’s institutions and by its intellectual influence. The first occurred with the introduction of Christian clergy into aristocratic societies, which formerly had been divided between the few hereditary rulers and the many who obeyed. “The clergy,” he notes, had opened “its ranks to all” so that “equality” began “to penetrate through the church to the heart of government.” As a result, one who formerly “would have vegetated as a serf” could now take “his place as a priest in the midst of nobles” and “often take a seat above kings.”[4]

In terms of its intellectual influence, Tocqueville holds that Christianity teaches a theological equality that suggests to men’s minds a kind of political equality as well. “Christianity, which has rendered all men equal before God, will not be loath to see all citizens equal before the law.”[5] Christianity’s contribution here might seem superfluous to us as modern human beings: We instinctively believe in equality before the law and in political equality more generally. As far as we can remember, it has always been a fundamental principle of the societies we inhabit. We are accordingly unlikely to feel much gratitude to a religion that lends theological support to the idea of equality.

Tocqueville’s account, however, is based on the long view of human history. It reminds us that if we consider the whole story of the human race, democracy and equality are not society’s default position. The political communities of classical Greece and Rome, Tocqueville observes, had deep social and political inequalities that were so well established and so taken for granted that modern ideas of equality and universal rights were inconceivable even to the “most profound and vast geniuses” of the ancient world. Under these conditions, “it was necessary that Jesus Christ come to earth to make it understood that all members of the human species are naturally alike and equal.”[6]

Christianity in America: A Political Principle

According to Tocqueville, Christianity is responsible for more than the general rise of equality as a European phenomenon. American democracy owes its birth to the influence of a specific form of Christianity: English Puritanism. The Pilgrims, he holds, laid the essential groundwork for America’s experiment in self-government.

America grew from a specific “point of departure,” a political and social state that conditions all that comes after it.[7] This point of departure was provided by the northern settlements. The principal ideas of the northern states “spread at first to the neighboring states” and then gradually “penetrated the entire confederation.”[8]

Religion was in fact the primary reason for the northern settlers’ immigration to the New World. They did not come to improve their material conditions; on the contrary, they left behind a rather comfortable situation to brave the hardships of the American wilderness. They made this sacrifice, according to Tocqueville, in order “to obey a purely intellectual need,” to “make an idea triumph.” This idea was, of course, their conception of the Christian community they wanted to establish. These settlers called themselves Pilgrims because their journey had a religious purpose: They sought to build Puritan communities, to live in America “in their manner and pray to God in freedom.”[9]

Tocqueville is not an uncritical admirer of the Puritans. He acknowledges that the societies they established were marred by excesses and follies. They copied much of their criminal law—including very harsh penalties—directly from the Old Testament, thus carrying “the legislation of a rude and half-civilized people into the heart of a society whose spirit was enlightened and more mild.” Elsewhere, “forgetting completely the great principles of religious liberty” that they had “demanded in Europe,” they used legal punishments to enforce worship and regulate its conduct.[10]

These errors and abuses proved to be temporary and were corrected by later generations of settlers. The positive political contribution of the Puritans, however, proved to be of lasting and fundamental importance to America’s way of life: establishing and sustaining democratic self-government.[11]

Puritanism, Tocqueville explains, “was not only a religious doctrine; it also blended at several points with the most absolute democratic and republican theories.”[12] The Pilgrims came to establish religious communities, but their beliefs called for such communities to be instituted and administered by the consent of the governed.

The Mayflower Compact, for example, identified the purpose of the Plymouth colony as “the glory of God, and advancement of the Christian faith, and the honor” of “King and country.” It also, however, established the colony’s government on the basis of the colonists’ decision to “covenant and combine ourselves into a civil body politick” and to “constitute and frame such just and equal laws, ordinances, acts, constitutions, and officers, from time to time, as shall be thought most meet and convenient for the general good of the colony.” Other New England colonies similarly “began by drafting a social contract that was submitted to the approval of all interested persons.”[13]

Puritan churches were governed democratically. “The greatest part of English America,” Tocqueville contends, was “peopled by men who, after having escaped the authority of the pope, did not submit to any religious supremacy.” Thus, they “brought to the New World a Christianity” that Tocqueville characterizes as “democratic and republican.” This fact “singularly” favored “the establishment of a republic and of democracy” in politics as well.[14]

Although Tocqueville does not spell out the connection here, we can discern it easily enough. The Puritans no doubt regarded the government of their churches as the most important of their duties. It would naturally have occurred to them that if ordinary people are good enough to manage the community’s spiritual affairs without the approval of a pre-existing hierarchical authority, then they surely are good enough to manage its temporal affairs in the same manner. Moreover, their experience of managing their churches in this way would have fostered the habits and skills necessary to democratic self-government in the political realm.

We might be tempted to dismiss Puritanism’s political contribution to American civilization as worthy but not decisive. From our vantage point, the rise of self-government appears to be a worldwide movement carrying all nations on the path to democracy. Why, we might ask, should the Puritan founders of America get any special credit for going along with what history seems to be doing in any case?

Tocqueville takes care to remind us, however, that in establishing self-government, the New England settlers were not merely following the rise of modern democracy, but were pioneering it. The Puritans’ democratic political principles turned out to be those “on which modern constitutions rest” in the civilized world. Such institutions were not commonplace at the time they were planted in New England. They were “hardly understood” by “most Europeans of the seventeenth century” and were only “incomplete” even in England.[15]

America, Tocqueville’s account thus reminds us, owes its democratic origins to its Puritan settlers. The North American English colonists were not uniformly religious, but it was the religious ones who established and nourished the spirit of self-government that later came to characterize the whole country. Moreover, we might add, this debt to the Puritans is owed not only by America, but also by much of the rest of the world. During parts of the 19th century, America was, if not the only democracy, then certainly the only large-scale, successful, and moderate democracy. Without its example, it is doubtful that the world would have moved as decisively in the direction of democracy as it finally did.

Religion and the Moral Foundations of Freedom

Besides recounting the historical debt that political freedom owes to Christianity, Tocqueville’s Democracy in America also offers a philosophic account of why a free society necessarily requires a religious foundation. Here his argument may surprise us, because it emphasizes society’s need for certain shared beliefs in order for there to be common action. Freedom certainly includes a right to question conventional opinion, but that freedom in turn always rests on some intellectual foundation in which all citizens must partake. For Tocqueville, religion is best equipped to provide that intellectual foundation for society.

Modern Americans understand their society to be a free one, believe that they have an obligation to preserve it as such, and think—rightly—that such a society depends on freedom of thought and discussion. We sometimes talk, however, as if this freedom requires an unfettered skepticism about all things or a willingness to treat all ideas as open to question. This, Tocqueville contends, is a mistake.

On the contrary, all societies depend in some degree or another on shared beliefs or “opinions men receive on trust.” Society is coordinated action, which requires common beliefs, but it is not possible for societies or even for individuals to arrive at such beliefs on the basis of the unguided, independent thinking of each individual. This, Tocqueville claims, is an “inflexible law” of the human condition. “If man were forced to prove to himself all the truths he makes use of every day, he would never finish; he would exhaust himself in preliminary demonstrations without advancing.” Having neither “the time because of the short span of life, nor the ability because of the limits of his mind,” man cannot establish by his own efforts all of the convictions that he needs; those that claim to have done so are dishonest or deluded.

Accordingly, an individual is “reduced to accepting as given a host of facts and opinions that he has neither the leisure nor the power to examine and verify by himself.” The functioning and prosperity of society therefore require “that all the minds of the citizens be brought and held together by some principal ideas; and that cannot happen unless each of them sometimes comes to draw his opinions from one and the same source and unless each consents to receive a certain number of ready-made beliefs.”[16] All societies, and especially free ones, require some intellectual unity, which in turn supports a unity of the citizens’ sentiments.

Religion, Tocqueville thinks, is the most important source of common beliefs for citizens. Here he is careful to note that his defense of society’s religious consensus is undertaken not with a view to what is good for religion, but instead with a view to what is good for society. Such religious beliefs are evidently useful “even if one wants to pay attention only to the interests of this world.” As the author of Democracy in America, Tocqueville is concerned not with the salvation of souls but with the preservation of a decent political order. Such an order depends, however, on the preservation of commonly held religious beliefs.

Here Tocqueville especially emphasizes religion’s contribution to sustaining public morality. Almost all human actions, he contends, “arise from a very general idea men have conceived of God, of his relations with the human race, of the nature of their souls, and of their duties towards those like them.” As a result, men “have an immense interest in making very fixed ideas for themselves about” such questions, “for doubt about these first points would deliver all their actions to chance and condemn them to a sort of disorder and impotence.”

Once again, Tocqueville notes the limited power of the individual human mind, which makes it impossible for common ideas on moral and religious questions to arise from the spontaneous and unregulated thought of each individual. Therefore, he concludes, “general ideas relative to God and human nature” are “the ones it is most fitting to shield from the habitual action of individual reason and for which there is most to gain and least to lose in recognizing an authority.”[17]

We might illustrate Tocqueville’s meaning with an example from recent American history. Fifty years ago, America had a strong national consensus about sexual morality, a consensus that rested on an almost universal respect for the moral teaching of the Bible. Since that time, this consensus has eroded in proportion as respect for the Bible as a source of religious truth has declined. The result, as Tocqueville predicted, is a form of public “disorder and impotence,” with Americans expending vast amounts of social energy fighting each other over political issues—such as the definition of marriage—that arise from disagreements about sexual morality.

Settled, common religious beliefs about morality are especially necessary, Tocqueville argues, for “free countries.” Without such beliefs, men are faced with a kind of intellectual and moral chaos that renders them incapable of preserving their freedom. “When religion is destroyed in a people,” he claims, “doubt takes hold of the highest portions of the intellect and half paralyzes all the others.” As a result, each citizen comes to have only “confused and changing notions” about the most important questions—such as the nature of his duties to himself, to others, and to the community.

Confronted with this uncertainty about the highest things, “one is reduced, like a coward, to not thinking about them at all.” “Such a state,” Tocqueville concludes, “cannot fail to enervate souls; it slackens the springs of the will and prepares citizens for servitude.”[18]

There is a connection, Tocqueville’s argument reminds us, between solidity of conviction and energy of soul, or between the confidence we have in our moral judgments and our ability to act on them. The latter depends decisively on the former. Those who believe with certitude in the rightness of a cause will fight for it most zealously, while those who are uncertain will fight less zealously or perhaps not at all. Such moral certainty and energy is necessary to the preservation of freedom. Political freedom or self-government requires exertion, and such exertion depends on the citizens’ solid belief in the rightness of self-government, or their belief that they are worthy of governing themselves. Without that belief, they cannot rouse themselves to action, and they will let their freedom slip away.

Indeed, Tocqueville continues, they might even go so far as to give it away on purpose. The moral uncertainty that follows the loss of religious belief not only weakens men; it also frightens them. When men are no longer restrained by the moral authority of religion, they are “soon frightened at the aspect of this limitless independence.” Because “everything is moving in the world of the intellect, they want at least that all be firm and stable in the material order,” and since they can no longer recover their lost religious beliefs, “they give themselves a master.”[19]

Human beings, Tocqueville’s argument suggests, desire freedom, but not an unlimited freedom. They want to govern themselves, but they do not want the responsibility of exercising an absolute and unlimited power over each other and the political community to which they belong. When they have firm moral convictions rooted in firmly held religious beliefs, they can be confident that they know how to exercise power justly, but what if they lose their religion and therefore become uncertain about what is morally right while nevertheless retaining a certain decency? In that case, they will no longer want to govern themselves, because they will find the responsibility frightening and oppressive. At this point, they will come to think that they can solve their problem by simply submitting themselves to the state, letting their rulers decide all things for them.

For Tocqueville, the way to prevent despotism from arising in this way is for a religious country to cherish and try to sustain its commonly held moral and religious beliefs. “As for me,” he concludes, “I doubt that man can ever support a complete religious independence and an entire political freedom at once.” If “he has no faith, he must serve, and if he is free, he must believe.”[20] If they wish to retain their freedom to govern themselves, a democratic people must strive to sustain the common religious culture that underlies their common moral convictions.

To be clear, Tocqueville is not contending that democracy requires a complete uniformity of religious belief. He never suggests that such a thing is either possible or desirable, and he admits that it did not exist even in the America of his own day. America never had, and a successful democracy does not need, total agreement about the proper modes of worship or the details of theology. Rather, what is required is a common body of religious opinion in support of the common morality that a free democracy needs. In Tocqueville’s own words, democratic citizens need a shared understanding of “God, of his relations with the human race, of the nature of their souls, and of their duties towards those like them.”[21]

Put more simply, democracy requires citizens who believe that the rules of morality—and hence the rights of their fellow citizens—are not merely convenient fictions but are instead rooted in the mind and will of the Author of all things, to whom they are accountable for their actions. Such shared beliefs were held across the various Christian denominations in Tocqueville’s America and are even held, as C. S. Lewis observes in The Abolition of Man, across different religions.[22] Accordingly, Tocqueville’s call for modern democracies to preserve their shared religious beliefs is not a rejection of pluralism; it is an effort to preserve the moral and religious foundation on which a successful pluralism can exist.

Religion as a Restraint on the Tyranny of the Majority

For Tocqueville, religion not only establishes the positive conditions required for modern democracy to emerge, but also acts as a necessary corrective to some of democracy’s most dangerous inclinations. Tocqueville presents democracy as a new form of freedom that displaced the servitude of the ancient and medieval world. Nevertheless, he warns that this democracy carries within it the possibility of new forms of servitude. Democratic freedom is also a form of power: the power of the people to rule. This power carries with it new possibilities for abuse, and Tocqueville accordingly emphasizes the importance of religion’s ability to impose a necessary limit on the majority’s power.

Tocqueville sees the danger of majority tyranny. Like America’s Founders, he sees that human nature is flawed and that human beings in any form of government are prone to do injustice to each other if they are not restrained in some way.

What “is a majority taken collectively,” Tocqueville asks, “if not an individual who has opinions and most often interests contrary to another individual that one names the minority?” If we can “accept that one man vested with omnipotence can abuse it against his adversaries, why not accept the same thing for a majority?” Men do not change their “character by being united,” nor do they “become more patient before obstacles by becoming stronger.”[23] Accordingly, Tocqueville concludes that the vast power held by the democratic majority carries “consequences” that are “dire and dangerous for the future.”[24]

Tocqueville understands, respects, and explains in his own work the institutional arrangements, such as federalism and separation of powers, that the American Founders established to restrain majority tyranny. He also holds, however, that the preservation of democratic freedom requires more than just an astutely organized government. It also calls for certain social and cultural institutions. Among these, he emphasizes newspapers, the legal profession, and the country’s impressive network of private voluntary associations. But most important, he also notes the role that American religion plays in checking the tyranny of the majority.

“In the United States,” Tocqueville observes, “religion” exercises a beneficial “empire over intelligence.” Almost all Americans believe in or at least respect Christianity, with the result that “everything is certain and fixed in the moral world.” Therefore, in America, “the human spirit never perceives an unlimited field before itself: however bold it may be, from time to time it feels that it ought to halt before insurmountable barriers.”

Tocqueville views this popular sense of immovable moral limits as necessary because of the protection it provides for the rights of those outside the majority, who are subject to the majority’s power. He notes that in America, even the most revolutionary political actors are “obliged to profess openly a respect for the morality and equity of Christianity.” Because of Christianity’s public moral influence, nobody in America up to Tocqueville’s time had “dared to advance the maxim that everything is permitted in the interest of society. An impious maxim—one that seems to have been invented in a century of freedom to legitimate all the tyrants to come.”[25]

In the 20th century, ruthless ideologies like Nazism and Communism arose and took hold of certain countries. These atheistic ideologies boldly and shamelessly held that everything was permitted in society’s interests, even to the extent of destroying certain categories of citizens that were held to be socially undesirable. In contrast, Americans, both in Tocqueville’s time and in our own, cannot think or talk about society’s interests without at the same time professing respect for the rights of individuals and minorities. This decent sense of restraint, Tocqueville suggests, is a heritage of Christian morality. So important is this contribution of religion to the decency of the Americans’ political order that Tocqueville goes so far as to declare that religion “should be considered the first of their political institutions.”[26]

On the basis of these arguments, Tocqueville seeks to correct the anti-religious European thinkers of his day—and, we might add, those of our own day—who fault America for its religiosity, deride religion as nothing but a source of oppression, and promote public atheism as a guarantee of freedom. For such men, “the freedom and happiness of the human species” require us to believe that human beings can be understood as nothing more than an accidental aggregation of matter and not as beings with souls. When such thinkers “attack religious beliefs,” Tocqueville argues, “they follow their passions and not their interests.” That is, they neglect the interests of society while following their anti-theological animus instead.

In reality, Tocqueville argues, religion “is much more necessary” in a “republic” than in a “monarchy,” and “in democratic republics more than all others.” It is safe to give the people power to rule only if they believe that there are moral limits on their power that they must respect and if their belief in such limits is sustained by their belief in religion. Thus, Tocqueville asks: “What makes a people master of itself”—or able to discipline itself to respect justice—“if it has not submitted to God?”[27]

Individualism and the Danger of Democratic Despotism

Democracy in America warns of another grave threat to freedom that arises in democratic times: the danger of democratic despotism. Here the peril is not that the majority will abuse its power in order to violate the rights of the minority. It is rather that the people as a whole will surrender their right to govern themselves, handing themselves over to the rule—perhaps benevolent, but perhaps not—of an all-powerful government directed by one man or perhaps a small elite.

In other words, the danger of democratic despotism is not the abuse of majority rule but the effective end of majority rule. According to Tocqueville, this danger emerges in a way that will be surprising to us. Most Americans, and especially most conservatives, think of individualism as opposed to despotism. Tocqueville, however, suggests that the former can give rise to the latter.

Here again, religion provides a necessary corrective. Despotism can arise within democracy when excessive forms of individualism and materialism make citizens indifferent to their public duties. Religion restrains these tendencies by reminding men of their obligations to each other and teaching them that the virtues of the soul are superior to the pleasures of the body.

Tocqueville praises the tremendous social and economic energy unleashed by the American spirit of self-reliance and individual exertion, seeing its great potential to better the human condition. Nevertheless, he also warns that democracies are susceptible to a debilitating individualism that isolates citizens from each other and therefore undermines their ability to sustain the spirit of cooperative citizenship on which self-government depends.

Here, as in many other places in Democracy in America, Tocqueville warns of democracy’s weaknesses by directing our attention to aristocracy’s strengths. Aristocracies, he observes, bind men closely together in a web of reciprocal duties. The laws of inheritance keep families forever associated with a particular plot of land and thus give each family a prominent place in the imaginations of its members. Moreover, the caste system continually reminds individuals of their duties to members of their own class as well as of their obligations to those who are above and below them in the social hierarchy.

Democracies, by contrast, are devoid of such lasting social bonds. The democratic law of inheritance breaks up large estates, thus narrowing our sense of family obligation by diminishing our sense of the family as an institution with a long history. In addition, while democracies certainly have differences in wealth and status, they do not have permanently established classes that impose extensive duties on their members.

Democracy’s overall effect on citizens, then, is to render them isolated from each other. Not only does it make “each man forget his ancestors, but it hides his descendants from him and separates him from his contemporaries; it constantly leads him back toward himself alone and threatens finally to confine him wholly in the solitude of his own heart.”[28] To some extent, we simply have to accept these consequences of democracy. There is nothing anyone can do to make democratic citizens as closely linked to their fellows as are the subjects of an aristocracy. Nevertheless, Tocqueville warns us that we cannot responsibly permit democratic individualism to go unchecked. We must seek to moderate it because in its unrestrained form, it opens the door to despotism.

Despotism, whether it takes the form of rule by an individual or rule by a small political elite, actually favors a spirit of extreme individualism among its subjects. It wants them to be isolated from each other because their cooperation is a threat to the government’s power. The despot, Tocqueville observes, “readily pardons the governed for not loving him, provided they do not love each other. He does not ask them to aid him in leading the state; it is enough that they do not aspire to direct it themselves.”[29] Democracy thus favors the development of precisely the kind of habits that permit despotism to arise and flourish.

According to Tocqueville, the Americans of his time, aware of the political dangers that arise from the isolation of citizens from each other, took steps to moderate the individualism that democracy fosters. One of their most important tools in this indispensable task was “the doctrine of self-interest well understood.” American moral teachers, Tocqueville notes, work tirelessly to promote the idea that each citizen can advance his long-term interests most effectively by diverting some of his effort from the pursuit of his own needs and dedicating it to the needs of the community. By fostering the cooperation needed to sustain self-government, the doctrine of self-interest well understood helps Americans to maintain their freedom.

Tocqueville also contends, however, that the doctrine of self-interest well understood needs to be enlivened by religious belief if it is to accomplish all that democracy needs. If this doctrine “had only this world in view,” he argues, “it would be far from sufficient; for there are a great number of sacrifices that can find their recompense only in the other world.”[30]

By teaching the existence of an afterlife with rewards for virtuous living, religion gives men the confidence to make the short-term sacrifices demanded by self-interest well understood. Without such beliefs, their sacrifices for the community in some cases would be made only with a certain reluctance and in other cases would be omitted entirely. One could not be sure that they would pay off, for one might die before receiving the return on one’s investment. Such doubts would inevitably stifle men’s public-spiritedness. The religious belief in rewards and punishments after death sustains such sacrifices by making their rewards certain. If one does not live long enough to be rewarded in the here and now, one can be sure of being rewarded in the hereafter. Thus, according to Tocqueville, does American religiosity combat the excessive individualism that can lead democracies to succumb to despotism.

Materialism and the Danger of Democratic Despotism

Another path by which democracy can fall into despotism is by succumbing to an excessive “passion for material well being.”[31] Tocqueville observes that democracy engenders an “ardent” interest in acquiring material comforts. This trait, like the individualism that he also observes, is also dangerous to freedom. If the democratic taste for material comforts goes unchecked, Tocqueville warns, democratic citizens will begin to view the duties of political participation as a burden because they take time and energy away from private economic activity.

Once again, Tocqueville points to religion’s ability to protect democracy from its own worst tendencies. By teaching the immortality of the soul, religion provides the intellectual ground on which democratic man can rise above absorption in material cares, find his self-respect, and attend to his moral duties.

Democracy is not solely responsible for creating the taste for material well-being. On the contrary, Tocqueville acknowledges that this desire is “natural and instinctive” for human beings. But different regimes guide this passion differently: Aristocracy, for example, tends to calm this desire, while democracy tends to agitate it.

According to Tocqueville, “what attaches the heart most keenly” to material well-being “is not the peaceful possession of a precious object, but the imperfectly satisfied desire to possess it and the incessant fear of losing it.” That is, aristocracy tends to quiet the passion for material comfort in all classes by the way in which it presents such comforts to each class:

[In an aristocracy,] the people in the end become habituated to poverty like the rich to their opulence. The latter are not preoccupied with material well-being because they possess it without trouble; the former do not think about it because they despair of acquiring it and because they are not familiar enough with it to desire it.[32]

In contrast, democracy tends to stimulate the love of material well-being universally, among all classes alike. Democracies do not have a fixed social hierarchy. As a result, although there are rich families, most of them have become rich through the exertions of their members. Such people cannot show the aristocrat’s indifference to material comforts because these individuals’ characters were formed while they were striving to acquire such comforts.

The rich in a democracy also know that through mismanagement of their fortunes, they may become poor. They are therefore worried about their material enjoyments even when their possessions are vast. Moreover, because there is the real possibility of social and economic mobility, even the poor in a democracy show a desire for material comforts. Finally, democracies are above all dominated by the middle class, whose position in life is such that it especially stimulates the desire for material comforts. Democracy therefore tends to produce a “multitude of mediocre fortunes.” Those “who possess them have enough material enjoyments to conceive the taste for these enjoyments” but “not enough to be content with them.”

As a result of all of these forces, the “love of material well-being” is the “national and dominant taste” in America. The “great current of human passions bears from this direction,” and “it carries everything along in its course.”[33]

This taste for material well-being can be dangerous to freedom if it is not kept within reasonable limits. Obsessed with improving their economic status and winning material comforts, the citizens of a democracy may lose sight of how their prosperity depends in the long run on their ability to remain free.

According to Tocqueville, there is “no need to tear from such citizens the rights they possess; they themselves willingly let them escape. The exercise of their political duties appears to them a distressing contretemps that distracts them from their industry.” Neglecting these duties, they leave a kind of vacuum in the political realm, a political void that may be filled by despotism. If “an ambitious, able man comes to take possession of power” under such circumstances, he will find “the way open to every usurpation.” And if he chooses the path of usurpation, the citizens will surrender their freedom and submit to his rule.[34]

Alternatively, despotism can also take a subtler but no less dangerous form: A small minority can dominate a nation’s politics, directing it in the name of the people even while acting contrary to the people’s interests:

[The members of such a faction] alone speak in the name of an absent or inattentive crowd; they alone act in the midst of universal immobility; they dispose of all things according to their whim, they change laws and tyrannize at will over mores; and one is astonished at the small number of weak and unworthy hands into which a great people can fall.

Here a democracy may arrive at despotism in practice while retaining self-government in form. The people retain all of their rights of political participation, but they do not use them because they are more interested in private pursuits.[35]

For Tocqueville, religion is necessary to avert this danger. Nothing, he notes, has such a striking power to turn Americans away from their pursuit of gain as their religion. Every Sunday, they stop their work and go to church. There they encounter teachings that remind them of and give them inspiration to live up to their obligations to the community to which they belong. At holy services, the American is “told of the necessity of regulating his desires, of the delicate enjoyments attached to virtue alone, and of the true happiness that accompanies it.” Returning home, he opens “the book of the Holy Scriptures,” finding there “sublime or moving depictions of the greatness and the goodness of the Creator, of the infinite magnificence of the works of God, of the lofty destiny reserved for men, of their duties, and of their rights to immortality.”[36]

To remain self-governing, Tocqueville teaches, people need to believe that they are made for something higher than the production and consumption of goods. Religion is necessary to that belief.

On the basis of these considerations, Tocqueville concludes that it is imperative for Americans—and all of the democratic peoples of Europe as well—to “maintain Christianity…at all cost.” Tocqueville is not writing here as an apologist for any particular religion; he is trying to defend the conditions of human freedom.

Once again, Tocqueville is writing neither as a theologian concerned with the theoretical truth of any particular religion nor as a preacher concerned with the salvation of souls, but rather as a political theorist concerned with the beliefs that are necessary to sustain a democratic people’s capacity for self-government. Thus, he emphasizes what he takes to be Christianity’s most politically relevant teaching, one that it holds in common with many other traditional religions: the immortality of the soul. “Most religions,” he contends, “are only general, simple, and practical means of teaching men the immortality of the soul.” This teaching “is the greatest advantage that a democratic people derives from” religious beliefs and is what makes these beliefs “more necessary to such a people than to all others.”[37]

Belief in the immortality of the soul, Tocqueville argues, is necessary to counter philosophic materialism: the belief that there is nothing but matter and that human beings are therefore nothing but matter. This form of materialism is dangerous to any kind of society but especially perilous to a democracy because of its tendency to encourage the thirst for material well-being. This desire, if it goes unchecked, gradually suggests to men that there is nothing but matter, and the belief that there is nothing but matter can only serve to convince men that material enjoyments are the only real enjoyments and thus to “carry them toward these enjoyments with an insane ardor.”

Such an excessive love of these pleasures is fatal to a people’s capacity for self-government. Therefore, religion should be cherished by democratic peoples because it teaches belief that the human soul is “immaterial and immortal,” which belief is in turn “necessary to the greatness of man.”[38]

Human beings cannot attain the dignity required for self-government, both as individuals and in communities, unless they can subordinate their bodily desires to their moral and political duties. That subordination in turn requires that they believe that they have souls, that some part of their being transcends their ordinary material interests. Religion is essential to that belief and therefore necessary for human greatness.

Tocqueville’s concern to preserve the conditions of human greatness also leads him to warn against the pantheistic impulse in religion. Democracy modifies all traditional religions in the direction of pantheism: the belief that God is the universe and the universe is God. This belief gradually takes the place of the traditional belief that God is the Creator of the universe who stands apart from and above His creation. Pantheism is morally and politically dangerous, Tocqueville concludes, because it presents a God who gives no laws, to whom one can have no duties, and who therefore cannot inspire modern men to transcend their selfishness.

The popularization of pantheism, Tocqueville holds, is the result of equality’s influence on the human mind. Democratic life disposes man to make use of “general ideas.” Because democratic citizens continually encounter human beings who are equal and basically similar—pursuing the same ends by the same kinds of means, enjoying all the same rights and privileges—they are inclined toward simplicity of explanation and like to make use of general ideas that cover a multitude of complex phenomena with one basic idea. This tendency is also encouraged by their lack of leisure for detailed study.

Thus, democratic peoples are attracted to the idea that complex political phenomena, such as war, can be explained by the operation of simple economic motives that govern the actions of all human beings and that complex human phenomena, such our emotions, can be explained by chemical processes found in the brains of all animals. These same habits of mind, Tocqueville argues, lead democratic peoples to pantheistic—which is to say vague and very general—notions of the divine. “God and the universe” become enclosed “within a single whole.”[39]

“All who remain enamored of the genuine greatness of man,” Tocqueville proclaims, “should unite to do combat against” pantheism.[40] Although Tocqueville does not explain in detail why pantheism is a threat to human greatness, his account provides the materials with which the attentive reader can piece together the explanation for himself.

Belief in the immortality of the soul is necessary to man’s ability to look down on and thus transcend his desire for material comforts. That ability is in turn necessary to man’s capacity for self-rule, both as an individual and as a member of a political community. Without the belief that there is a part of his nature that is higher than his bodily desires, he will be unable to control those desires, to subordinate them to some conception of his moral and political duties. And without each man’s ability to exercise such individual self-rule, the community as a whole will be incapable of self-rule, because most citizens will ignore politics while pursuing their own private interests.

Democracy’s pantheistic impulse, however, tends to create the kind of religion that actually undermines man’s ability to look down on his bodily desires and conceive his moral and political duties as something higher to which he must subordinate those desires. Because pantheism places God in all things, because it divinizes all things, it obliterates the sense of a moral hierarchy that is crucial for man to govern his lower nature. If all things are divine, then all activities are divine. If the single-minded pursuit of private gain is just as divine as attention to the common good, there is no compelling reason for the democratic individual to resist his inclination to the former and dedicate part of his life to politics. And when most citizens refuse to fulfill their duties of political participation, the path is cleared for the despotic rule of an individual or a minority.

Tocqueville thus teaches us that religion—or the right kind of religion—is necessary to human greatness within democracy. Religion teaches the immortality of the soul. Belief in the immortality of the soul is necessary to man’s self-rule, on the level of both the individual and the community, and self-rule, in a sense, deserves to be called human greatness. This is perhaps more immediately obvious on the level of the individual. Certainly, we would call no man great who lived for nothing but to satisfy his desire for material comforts, who permitted himself to be borne along by such desires with no effort at all to direct them to anything higher.

It is more difficult to see why popular self-government should be understood as a form of human greatness. We are so accustomed to it that we take it for granted, believing (mistakenly) that it is just part of the ordinary course of politics. Yet Tocqueville took the longer view of human history, realizing that popular self-rule, government by the people, is not the ordinary tendency of things but instead a rare and high achievement. Most societies in history have not attained it. The Americans were able to achieve and sustain it because of their virtuous habits of public-spirited attention to the affairs of the community, and their religion was necessary to sustain those virtues and therefore necessary to America’s claim to political greatness.

The Challenge of Sustaining Religion in Democracy

Tocqueville’s teaching on the role of religion in a modern democracy presents us not so much with a solution to a problem as with a challenge. There is, after all, no button that we can push to activate religion and thus automatically correct democracy’s tendency to lose its freedom. On the contrary, Tocqueville’s teaching reminds us that as responsible citizens of a democracy, we must take care to preserve the country’s inherited religious traditions and that this task in turn requires a clear understanding of democracy’s character and needs.

This task is a challenge because democratic conditions tend to undermine religion—to undermine the system of belief that is so necessary to the preservation of freedom. The inhabitants of a democracy, Tocqueville observes, tend to be natural skeptics and rationalists. Aristocracy fosters a kind of trust in authority: Since most men are uneducated and must rely on a small class of enlightened rulers, they acquire habits of faith in some superior intelligence. Democracy does away with such a hierarchy and leaves all men fundamentally equal. Such men are left to rely primarily on their own understanding to answer the questions they confront in life; as a result, they are not much disposed to trust any human authority, nor sometimes even divine authority.

Nevertheless, Tocqueville certainly does not suggest that religion is doomed to extinction by the rise of democracy. On the contrary, he holds out hope that religion can be preserved within democracy, despite the social and intellectual forces working against it. This is possible, Tocqueville suggests, because religion is rooted in something even more fundamental than the democratic social state: human nature.

Tocqueville indicates repeatedly that man is by nature a religious being, or at least open to religion. The short span of this life “will never confine the whole imagination of man; the incomplete joys of this world will never suffice for his heart.” Man is unique among animals because he alone shows both “a natural disgust for existence and an immense desire to exist: he scorns life and fears nothingness.” The effect of these disparate passions impels man’s “soul toward contemplation of another world, and it is religion that guides it there.” Accordingly, religion is “only a particular form of hope,” one that is “as natural to the human heart as hope itself.”[41]

To sum up the situation as Tocqueville sees it, religion is necessary to the preservation of freedom within democracy but is itself in danger of being undermined by democracy. Nevertheless, it is also rooted in human nature and therefore capable of being preserved even in democratic times. What steps, then, must be taken to preserve and strengthen religion in democratic times? How can we draw on human nature to preserve religion’s influence against the democratic social state’s tendency to undermine it? According to Tocqueville, this essential task requires a certain prudent statesmanship that must be practiced both by religious leaders and by political leaders.

Tocqueville advises religious leaders to take care that their presentation of the faith not needlessly offend modern democratic sensibilities. He does not suggest that they should modify their doctrines to suit modern tastes. That would be counterproductive, since a religion that edits its fundamental teachings to curry favor with the public cannot be taken seriously as a source of divine teaching. It is, however, possible for religious leaders to modify the presentation and practice of the faith in nonessentials so as to avoid alienating their flocks.

As we have seen, democracy favors a certain simplicity in doctrine. The taste for general ideas inclines the democratic mind to prefer a simple system, such as one that emphasizes the relationship between God and the human person, over more complex schemes that emphasize a wide variety of intermediary beings. Accordingly, in democratic times, there should be less emphasis by religious leaders on veneration of the saints and angels, which in the past was so congenial to the aristocratic mind, the kind of mind that had been habituated to think in terms of a complex hierarchy.

Similarly, Tocqueville also advises democratic religions to keep the externals of their worship as simple as possible. Democratic men, he argues, are pragmatic and businesslike. They want any task—including the worship of God—to be completed in as efficient and straightforward a manner as possible. They have nothing like the taste for ceremony and form that characterizes aristocratic ages.

Finally, coming to the question of human conduct, Tocqueville holds that religious leaders should not set themselves too inflexibly against the people’s pursuit of material comforts. This inclination could be condemned in aristocratic ages, but such outright denunciation would go too much against the grain of democratic man’s character. Therefore, religious leaders in democratic times should teach men to restrain their love of such comforts but not tell them to give them up entirely. By making excessively demanding claims, religion would succeed not in reforming men, but instead in making them ignore religion’s claims.[42]

Turning to political leaders, Tocqueville’s advice is both negative and positive. He emphasizes both a fundamental error to be avoided and the things that must be done. He insists, in the first place, that we must avoid the error of creating an official establishment of religion. This advice is congenial to the American mind, since it approves the policy that our Founders placed in the Constitution: The First Amendment forbids Congress to make any law respecting an establishment of religion.

Nevertheless, from the standpoint of the task at hand, Tocqueville’s advice might seem counterintuitive: If democracy needs religion, and if responsible political leadership means providing for the things that democracy needs, then why should our political leaders not safeguard religion’s place in the community by supporting it with governmental power? Tocqueville believes that the American Founders, in setting up a separation of church and state, had actually struck upon an arrangement that would both protect religious liberty and help religion to flourish. He contends that religion is so powerful in America precisely because of the separation of church and state.

The union of religion and politics, Tocqueville argues, actually tends in the long run to weaken the citizens’ attachment to religion by tying it to all of the dissatisfaction and animosity that is inevitably caused by wielding political power. Put another way, the union of church and state actually makes some men—even those disposed to be believers—into political enemies of religion. This danger, he held, is especially acute in a democracy. The politics of an aristocracy is characterized by stability, while the politics of a democracy is characterized by agitation and change. In the latter, power passes from hand to hand, and parties rise and fall, so quickly that it would be folly to think that religion could be aided by being tied to such transitory allies. Given religion’s natural hold on the human mind, then, the first step in ensuring its social and political power is not to hinder it artificially by tying it to the government.[43]

Such negative advice, however, does not preclude the possibility of positive steps that democratic leaders might take to lend their support to religion. Democratic statesmen can use their position to foster religious belief even as they scrupulously avoid using the power of government to do so. In fact, Tocqueville contends, this is one of their most important duties. Religion is so important to democracy’s ability to remain free that “legislators of democracies and all honest and enlightened men who live in them must apply themselves relentlessly to raising up souls and keeping them turned toward heaven.” If such leaders are truly concerned for the “future of democratic societies,” they must “unite” to “make continuous efforts to spread within these societies a taste for the infinite, a sentiment of greatness, and a love of immaterial pleasures.”[44]

How, we may wonder, is this to be done, especially when Tocqueville insists that democratic statesmen must not pursue this end by using the most obvious tool they have at their disposal: the power of the government? Tocqueville hesitates to give his answer, deterred by how strange he expects it will sound to most democratic political leaders, but is nevertheless driven to it by democracy’s need for religion and the lack of alternative means to support it. Recognizing that his claim will “harm” him “in the eyes of politicians,” he declares that “the only efficacious means governments can use to put the dogma of the immortality of the soul in honor is to act every day as if they themselves believed it” and that “it is only in conforming scrupulously to religious morality in great affairs that they can flatter themselves they are teaching citizens to know it, love it, and respect it in small ones.”[45]

Tocqueville expects that most democratic politicians will scoff at this advice because he knows that they ordinarily think of nothing but winning power for themselves by delivering benefits to their constituents. He also knows, however, that the ordinary behavior of democratic politicians is a true indication only of the smallness of their own minds, not of what is necessary to the greatness of a free democracy. He teaches that democratic freedom requires a flourishing religion, which in turn requires that we strive to produce statesmen with the loftiness of vision to see, and the courage of heart to give, democracy what its greatness requires rather than what its passions demand.


America’s religious landscape has changed markedly since Alexis de Tocqueville visited the United States and wrote Democracy in America. The country is not as religious now as it was then, and the religious segment of the country is not as exclusively Christian as it was then. One could not say today, as Tocqueville said in the 1830s, that all commerce and activity stops on Sunday or that everyone in American public life is obliged to profess respect for Christian morality. These changes, however, do not render Tocqueville’s teaching about religion and democracy irrelevant to us any more than other far-reaching changes in American society render irrelevant other institutions bequeathed to us by the Founders and emphasized by Tocqueville as necessary to freedom and democracy.

The national government, for example, is far more powerful and extensive today than it was in the 19th century, and the executive branch is far more powerful and exercises a much more wide-ranging discretion than it did in the 19th century. But we do not abandon our commitment to fundamental American principles such as federalism and separation of powers simply because we can see no hope of making today’s government conform to those principles in the same way that it did in the early years of the republic. We instead seek to sustain and restore these principles to the extent possible in contemporary circumstances, with a view to preserving freedom to the extent that we can do so in our time.

So it is with religion. The responsible democratic statesman could not and should not aim to restore America as a Christian nation such as it was in the 1830s. Such a statesman can and should, however, seek to learn from Tocqueville what Christianity contributed to the growth and flourishing of American democracy and how a certain kind of religion—a religion that reminds majorities of the limits on their just power and individuals of their duties to their fellows and to the political community—is necessary to support democracy in general. Such a statesman would then be in a position to try to preserve what remains of the freedom-sustaining moral culture first planted in America by Christianity; to acknowledge and encourage the politically salutary teachings of America’s non-Christian religions; and to remind everyone, including America’s non-religious citizens, of the positive contribution that religion can make to upholding democracy and freedom in our own time.

Such a Tocquevillian statesmanship would take religion seriously, but without a spirit of religious dogmatism. Such a statesman offers not a sectarian call to a religiously pristine past, but a set of principles by which we can chart our way into a future that will be different but will also preserve the essential virtues of the past and with them the freedom we have inherited.

—Carson Holloway, PhD, is an Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Nebraska at Omaha and chairs the B. Kenneth Simon Center for Principles and Politics’ Council of Academic Advisors at The Heritage Foundation. He is the author of Hamilton Versus Jefferson in the Washington Administration: Completing the Founding or Betraying the Founding? (Cambridge University Press, 2016).





[1] “Washington’s Farewell Address,” September 19, 1796, Heritage Foundation First Principles Series Primary Sources No. 12, .

[2] Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, trans. Harvey C. Mansfield and Delba Winthrop (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002), pp. 279–280, 519.

[3] Ibid., p. 6.

[4] Ibid., p. 4.

[5] Ibid., p. 11.

[6] Ibid., p. 413.

[7] Ibid., p. 29.

[8] Ibid., pp. 32–33.

[9] Ibid., p. 32 (emphasis in original).

[10] Ibid., pp. 38–39.

[11] For a different account that emphasizes, instead of the continuity of American democracy with its Puritan origins, the natural rights doctrine that emerged at the time of the Founding, see Thomas G. West, “Misunderstanding the American Founding,” in Interpreting Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, ed. Ken Masugi (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 1991), pp. 155–177.

[12] Tocqueville, Democracy in America, p. 32.

[13] Ibid., p. 35.

[14] Ibid., p. 275.

[15] Ibid., p. 39.

[16] Ibid., pp. 407–408.

[17] Ibid., pp. 417–418.

[18] Ibid., p. 418.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Ibid., pp. 418–419.

[21] Ibid., pp. 417–418.

[22] C. S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man (New York: Collier Books, 1947).

[23] Tocqueville, Democracy in America, p. 240.

[24] Ibid., p. 237.

[25] Ibid., pp. 279–280.

[26] Ibid.

[27] Ibid., p. 282.

[28] Ibid., p. 485.

[29] Ibid.

[30] Ibid., p. 504.

[31] Ibid., p. 506.

[32] Ibid., pp. 506–507.

[33] Ibid., pp. 507–508.

[34] Ibid., pp. 515–516.

[35] Ibid., p. 516.

[36] Ibid., p. 517.

[37] Ibid., p. 519.

[38] Ibid., p. 520.

[39] Ibid., p. 426.

[40] Ibid.

[41] Ibid., p. 284.

[42] Ibid., pp. 419–423.

[43] Ibid., pp. 282–288.

[44] Ibid., p. 519.

[45] Ibid., p. 521.

Protect and Defend

Protect and Defend


    Of all of the many Framers’ and Founders’ original intentions that standout, three are now totally disregarded in the political onslaught. Equal opportunity, limited government, and, most important, justice for all have been sacrificed in the quest for political power. No longer is the attack on America concealed in the constant lies and deceptions emanating from false propaganda of the liberal media and the candidates they support. Under attack as never before, we, the people are responsible. Hearing what we want to hear, we are tolerant of injustice, bribed by offerings satisfying selfish indulgence, and unaccepting of morality and righteousness. Except for the true patriots, service and sacrifice are never translated into actions that elevate and benefit all. Special interests through unjust corrupt political influence enslave us.


When political corruption allowed a former president to escape conviction for perjury, justice for all was lost in the septic tank of indifference and unjust privilege. Also under the watch of this same president, missile guidance secrets critical to our national security landed in the hands of our enemies giving them the ability to target our homeland. Now his spouse, complicit in the Benghazi tragedy, is avoiding justice. This long train of abuses terribly denigrating our entire order of law began long ago in the Arkansas political arena. Not surprisingly, until their occupancy, the Clinton White House was the only one not achieving full national security clearance.


With the tyranny of the Supreme Court, now egregiously populated by enemies of the Constitution, judicial activism defying even common sense and natural Law has descended to heretofore unconscionable levels of injustice. Again, injustice is enabled by politically sanctioned violation of the Constitution.


The outrageous out-of-control national debt being passed on to our children and taxation without representation spotlight the abyss holding the Framers’ intention for limited government. The primary intention defining states’ rights has been ignored by politicians intending to make government a god.


Equal opportunity, the “unalienable Right” to pursue happiness, has been sequestered into the hands of the rich and politically indulged. The following article by Ken Blackwell is telling.




Corporate Clinton

J. Kenneth Blackwell

28 June, 2016

    Many leaders of big business support Hillary Clinton. Last week she announced a list of 56 corporate backers. No wonder Bernie Sanders is still running against her.

    Hillary Clinton always has attracted well-connected business supporters. Even before she ran for office. Remember the lucrative cattle trades when she was Arkansas first lady? That came from a local businessman who knew how important it was to have friends in the governor’s mansion.

Bill Clinton had plenty of business support when he ran for president. As New York senator she was quite friendly with Wall Street—a relationship that continued afterwards, with her being paid queenly sums for talks which probably did not emphasize how she was fighting for the common man and woman. While secretary of state corporate behemoths were generous with donations to her family foundation.

Now big business is coming out for her in the presidential race. Admittedly, not all are traditional firms. Magic Johnson, the former basketball player, made the list as Chairman and CEO, Magic Johnson Enterprises. So did Erroll Davis, retired chancellor of the University System of Georgia. State colleges are more politics than business.

What stands out among the companies are the names of those whose business depends on government regulation or largesse. It’s impossible to know what Donald Trump would do in such cases. But we do know what Hillary Clinton would do: Keep the corporate welfare flowing.

For instance, there’s Dan Akerson, former chairman and CEO of Government Motors, er, I mean General Motors. Richard Anderson, Executive Chairman of Delta Airlines, which is at the mercy of government policy at almost every point in its operations. James Bell, former corporate president and CFO of Boeing. Indeed, in the recent battle over the Export-Import Bank, long known as Boeing’s Bank, Hillary Clinton, in contrast to most of the GOP presidential contenders, stood fast for corporate profit at taxpayer expense.

There’s Robert Burt, former chairman of the Business Roundtable, which has been a steadfast supporter of corporate welfare. And Margot Dorfman, President and CEO of the U.S. Women’s Chamber of Commerce. Her group wants lots of government programs.

Another name on the list is James J. Murren, Chairman and CEO of MGM Resorts International. It’s hard to get more political than the gambling industry. Can you say support for stadium subsidies and antitrust exemption? Gary Rodkin, the retired CEO of ConAgra Foods. There are farm subsidies aplenty.

Of course, all of these executives may be backing Hillary Clinton because they believe she is most likely to bring peace to the Middle East, deter Chinese expansion, and contend with Brexit. Still, surely they, like Sen. Sanders, are aware that Clinton always has been a soft touch when it comes to well-heeled businessmen and women.

Earlier this year Michael Bloomberg bluntly declared: “The Republican Party is no longer the party of business.” He complained that the GOP was appealing to … union members. For instance, while business leaders supported federalizing education through the Common Core, Republicans opposed it: “Some crazy right wing people claimed it was a federal program.”

I guess we can argue whether it’s more regulation or “program,” as if that matters. It certainly is control. Which is why conservatives oppose it.

We see much the same phenomenon with religious liberty. Corporate behemoths are lining up with government, ready to crush small enterprises underfoot if they do not genuflect before the idol of social liberalism.

Big business long ago made its peace with the regulatory Leviathan. Indeed, regulation is a competitive advantage for large firms. The losers are small enterprises: the proverbial “little guy,” like the wedding photographer, baker, and event site. The big companies don’t much care who gets run over by history so long as they are friends of the driver—in this case Hillary Clinton.

Of course Republican candidates should seek support from corporate executives just like anyone else. Many do believe in limited government and individual liberty. And the GOP should be pro- free market, with regulation focused on ensuring a fair process. The objective should not be pro- business per se.

Similarly, the party should be in favor of free bargaining between labor and management over wages and working conditions. And ensuring that the rules are fair to all. That means being friends of working people, not Big Unions.

Alas, economic privilege, not fairness, always has been Hillary Clinton’s agenda. Which is why some corporate executives are joining her campaign.

Ken Blackwell is Senior Fellow for Human Rights and Constitutional Governance at Family Research Council Action.


Religion and Government

Religion and Government

excerpted from Natural Law And Liberty, “How Are The Mighty Fallen!

Chuck Baldwin, 21 July, 2016

    America’s colonial pastors were the fire and inspiration for America’s break from the tyranny of the British Crown. Patriot preachers such as John Witherspoon, John Leland, Jonathan Mayhew, Isaac Backus, Samuel Cooper, Ebenezer Baldwin, James Caldwell, John Peter Muhlenberg, and Jonas Clark were as important to the success of the American Revolution as were the patriots Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, Sam Adams, Dr. Joseph Warren, John Hancock, Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, and Richard Henry Lee.

    John Adams delineated the duty of America’s pastors: “It is the duty of the clergy to accommodate their discourses to the times, to preach against such sins as are most prevalent, and recommend such virtues as are most wanted. For example, if exorbitant ambition and venality are predominant, ought they not to warn their hearers against those vices? If public spirit is much wanted, should they not inculcate this great virtue? If the rights and duties of Christian magistrates and subjects are disputed, should they not explain them, show their nature, ends, limitations, and restrictions, how much soever it may move the gall of Massachusettensis?”

The Bible is a book of science; a book of history; a book of mathematics; a workbook for families; a book of business and economics; a book of geography; a book of archeology; a book of soldiering; and a book of government. To ignore what the Bible teaches on all of these subjects is to make the vast majority of the scriptures completely irrelevant. And, that is exactly what [ politically trashing the original intention of the First Amendment to the Constitution is forcing on (added by the CftC)] the modern pulpit …: [I]t is making the Bible completely irrelevant – especially regarding the affairs of government.

And while many secularists will accuse politically involved pastors (“conservative” pastors, of course – they don’t mind “liberal” clergymen getting involved in politics whatsoever) of trying to create a “theocracy,” they need to be reminded that the religious and secularist communities of colonial America fought side-by-side for America’s independence. The reason they could do this was because, for the most part, both groups understood the Natural Law principles of liberty that are common to all men.

John Adams said on the floor of the Continental Congress as he passionately appealed to his fellow delegates to approve a Declaration of Independence from Great Britain, “Sir, before God, I believe the hour is come. My judgement approves this measure, and my whole heart is in it. All that I have, and all that I am, and all that I hope, in this life, I am now ready here to stake upon it; and I leave off as I begun, that live or die, survive or perish, I am for the declaration. It is my living sentiment, and by the blessing of God it shall be my dying sentiment, independence now and independence forever.”

Adams’ speech, perhaps more than any other, convinced delegates to vote in support of our Declaration of Independence. Without a doubt, it is one of the most important speeches in American history – perhaps second only to Patrick Henry’s immortal “Give Me Liberty, Or Give Me Death” speech. Here is one paragraph from that speech by John Adams:

   “If we fail, it can be no worse for us. But we shall not fail. The cause will raise up armies; the cause will create navies. The people – the people, if we are true to them, will carry us, and will carry themselves, gloriously, through this struggle. I care not how fickle other people have been found. I know the people of these colonies, and I know that resistance to British aggression is deep and settled in their hearts, and cannot be eradicated. Every colony, indeed, has expressed its willingness to follow, if we but take the lead. Sir, the declaration will inspire the people with increased courage. Instead of a long and bloody war for the restoration of privileges, for redress of grievances, for chartered immunities, held under a British King, set before them the glorious object of entire independence, and it will breathe into them anew the breath of life. Read this declaration at the head of the army; every sword will be drawn from its scabbard, and the solemn vow uttered, to maintain it, or to perish on the bed of honor. Publish it from the pulpit; religion will approve it, and the love of religious liberty will cling round it, resolved to stand with it, or fall with it. Send it to the public halls; proclaim it there; let them hear it who heard the first roar of the enemy’s cannon, let them see it who saw their brothers and their sons fall on the field of Bunker Hill, and in the streets of Lexington and Concord, and the very walls will cry out in its support.”


A Nation On the Brink

Nation on brink of race wars – so now isn’t the time to mince words

Dr. Michael L. Brown

Monday, July 11, 2016

As America stands at the precipice of deadly, coast-to-coast, race wars, this is not the time to mince words. I would rather speak the truth in love, even if it means offending some, than avoid confrontation out of fear of offense. In return, I expect others to be just as candid with me.

I also recognize that, if racial tensions escalate in our nation and more blood is shed, the ones who are likely to suffer the most (and perhaps the longest) are Black Americans. And so, I write this column because I do believe that Black Lives Matter.

Prof. George Yancey, himself an African American, has also urged for open, candid conversations, writing, “Maybe now with people on all sides of the political and racial arguments feeling such pain, we can begin taking the necessary steps to move towards real racial reconciliation.”

It is in that spirit that I write this column, fully aware that I’m not addressing the concerns of Hispanic Americans, Asian Americans, Native Americans, or other minorities in our midst, but that is the nature of this article. I trust all readers will understand.

Although I am a White American (more specifically, a White male, identifying more specifically as a Jewish believer in Jesus), I’m not speaking of “us” and “them” in this column. Rather, I’m addressing all of us together, letting the chips fall where they may.

Shall we proceed?

  • White Americans sometimes do not see racism when it is there; Black Americans sometimes see racism when it is not there. If we will take the time to hear one another out, filling in each other’s blind spots, we can move from perception to reality.
  • There is a real reason for Black frustration and anger. When Whites minimize the pain of Blacks or, worse still, claim that they are just being pawns of the media or political leaders, they deeply insult their Black brothers and sisters. Most Whites really do not understand what it is like to grow up as a minority culture, and they cannot relate to the historic suffering of Blacks in America, a history which is not as far in the distant past we would all like it to be.
  • All Black lives matters, not just the lives of Blacks who die at the hands of White cops. White critics have rightly asked, “Where are the rallies and protests when a three-year-old Black child dies from random, inner-city gun fire? And what about the disproportionate number of Black babies killed in the womb, not to mention Blacks killed by other Blacks?” A Black man named Richard wrote on Facebook, “We cannot pick and choose when we decide to make a stand. We’re either all in (we must address black on black crime in addition to the murder of innocent blacks) or we’re not in at all. We can’t let these race-baiting politicians further divide us; if you haven’t noticed they want a race war. We must stand up and unite, both black and white and whatever other ethnicity and re-claim our freedom.”
  • All rhetoric that leads to violence, let alone that calls for violence, must be categorically renounced and repudiated. Not a few leaders in the Black Lives Matter movement need to do some serious soul-searching in light of the intentional, targeted shooting of cops in several states this past week. (Yancey characterizes Black Lives Matter as “a group that pushes its own racialized agenda and expects compliance instead of communication.”) Their irresponsible rhetoric can easily lead to bloodshed.
  • Everyone must work together to address injustice and inequality wherever it raises its head, be it in the courts or on the streets. Blacks would be greatly encouraged if they saw their White colleagues standing up for their cause rather than always taking a defensive posture. Do Whites automatically give the benefit of the doubt to other Whites, assuming Black claims of injustice are illegitimate?
  • It is social suicide to launch a war against our law enforcement agents. The police to do a good, important, often thankless, frequently life-threatening job, and without their sacrificial service, our nation would descend into chaos. The few bad cops who are out there are the exception to the rule (and they must be held accountable). Law and order is a good thing, not a bad thing, and as one black caller to my radio show noted (he was a career cop), when the bullets started flying in Dallas last week, the crowds ran from the shots; the police ran towards them to try to take out the killer(s).
  • It is important today to state that All Lives Matter. I understand that if a Black man is bleeding to death on the side of the road, having been shot without cause by an irresponsible White cop, it is insulting to say, “Yes, he’s dying, but let’s remember that All Lives Matter.” But when White policemen lay dying in the streets it is insensitive not to say All Lives Matter.
  • There is no comparison between a policeman overreacting and killing someone and another person intentionally targeting a policeman for death. I do not believe for a second that White cops get up in the morning and say to themselves, “I hope I can kill a Black person today!” Sadly, a Black man decided last week that he would murder as many cops as he could. There’s no true comparison between the two, whatever the skin color of the victims or perpetrators.
  • The elephant in the room is the breakdown of the Black American family. This was stressed to me by another black caller to my show. The disastrous, generational effects of fatherlessness are well-documented, and with illegitimacy in Black America at an almost unimaginable high of 74 percent, this is not simply a Black crisis; it is a national crisis. We got into this situation together, and we can only get out of it together.
  • There is far more that unites than divides us. We are, after all, one race, with each of us equally created in God’s image and equally loved by our Creator. And all of us as Americans have the same right to “Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.” It is the devil who wants to divide and destroy us and the Lord who wants to unite and strengthen us. Let us work with the Lord, not against Him.

Speaking now as a White American to my Black American brothers and sisters, I say from the heart: America cannot be great unless you are thriving, and my own life will not be full if your lives are not full.

Dr. Michael Brown, a Jewish believer in Jesus, is a biblical scholar, apologist, worldwide speaker, and activist. He is the host of the nationally syndicated, talk radio program “Line of Fire,” and he serves as president of FIRE School of Ministry in Concord, NC, as well as adjunct professor at a number of seminaries. He is the author of 25 books, most recently “Can You Be Gay and Christian?”


Enough Is Enough! – The Fourth of July Revisited

Enough Is Enough! – The Fourth of July Revisited


    The Framers’ intentions that the Constitution be “the supreme law of the land” “establish[ing] justice” for all, “insur[ing] domestic tranquility, provid[ing] for the common defense, promot[ing] the general welfare, and secur[ing] the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity” have been lost to the political failure of those we elect to uphold their oath of office. From judicial activism; to legislative bodies at every level of government failing to appropriately and effectively address changing economic and political circumstances globally and in our homeland based solely on the realities and truths of science and history; to executive branch failure and interference with the administration of the order of law, America is in a new great civil war.

    With the killing of the five police officers in Dallas, and the ongoing failure of politicians to allow police to uphold the order of law, we are in a crisis brought about by the public complicity in electing those who are more interested in reelection than protecting the Constitution from enemies foreign and domestic.

    The “Ferguson effect” manifest by allowing any violation of the order of law to go unpunished is now witnessed across the land. Just blocking roads preventing citizens access to their homes or business, to allowing voter fraud, or any other transgression of law, from major to minor, is diametrically contrary to justice for all. Tolerating lies, deceptions, and untruths in a guise of “political correctness” offers both the criminal and the sinner unwarranted excuse. Never should rioters be allowed to attack police by any means, loot, destroy, or even block an interstate. Freedom without responsibility and accountability is anarchy!

    In this presidential election, we are seeing a candidate who is a prime example of how far we have descended from the freedom and justice paid for by the sacrifices of the righteous and just. The justice system as envisioned by the Framers and Founders is grounded on truth. Lies, deceptions, and untruths are the declared enemies of justice. Political office must be qualified by actions and history, not words and desires. Realities of perjury, Benghazi, crime overlooked, injustice, and the tyranny of injustice perpetrated by those robed in black or public officials must be punished for justice to obtain.

    Solutions to the attacks on America reside not in amending the Constitution and the Constitutions of the various States, but in upholding their original intention. Candidates for public office must have and be held to platforms defined by truth and adhering to the original intention of the Constitution as clearly explicitly described in the Preamble. Hollow rhetoric attempting to bride an electorate with what they want or desire unbound by liberty and justice for all must be faced and defeated by truth. Moneyed and special interests seeking unjust power or rewards, unjust minorities, false religions, and all enlisted in the armies of evil and injustice, must be defeated by the forces of morality and justice for all. Morality, justice, and truth are defined by immutable Law, not by ever-failing and erring humanity.



All subscribers: Please consider this an open letter to all public officials, candidates, political parties, etc. Forward it to all on your eMail and social media lists. We are at war!

The Fourth of July, 2016

The Fourth of July, 2016


    This 4th of July, 2016, it is incumbent that we recognize and honor the sacrifices of those who instituted a new form of government that changed history for the better. Founded on the premise that those “unalienable Rights”, that are now under attack as never before, were an endowment precluding human interference or denial; “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” are being lost to the chosen ignorance of a public electing those who continually violate their oath of office. With Congress failing to constitutionally deal with the tyranny of judicial activism, the out-of-control administrative state, and permitting the executive branch to knowingly issue unconstitutional usurpations of the intention of the Constitution, the legacy and heritage of freedom and justice for all are drowned in the cesspool of political ideologies totally foreign to the original intention of the Framers and Founders. Our tolerance of the untruths, lies, and deceptions under any motivation condoning the attack on all that made America great must be rejected and defeated to truly honor the sacrifices realized on the Fourth of July in 1776.


Many of those who, “with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence”, sacrificed “…[their] Lives, [their] Fortunes, and [their] sacred Honor” came to these shores seeking religious freedom. Regardless of denomination or sect, it was that Christian ideology that was the foundation of the Constitution. So important to their concept of liberty and justice for all were those freedoms that without the guarantees defined in the Bill of Rights, the Constitution would not have been ratified. Second only to the requisite to protect those “unalienable” “endowed” rights was their demand to eliminate any fear of the tyranny they had experienced from government. The checks and balances of the branches of government incorporated in the Constitution addressed that fear. In addition, they intended that all powers not enumerated in the Constitution were to be reserved to the States. Misinterpretation, indeed perversion, of the Fourteenth Amendment, primarily encountered because of the Congressional failure to curb judicial activism has resulted in the flagrant violation the rights paid for in the war formally begun with the Declaration of Independence, 4 July, 1776.


Now, with any doubt dispelled by the Supreme Court’s refusal to hear Stormans, Inc. v. Wiesman, a new civil war is declared. Spoken of in Justice Alito’s dissent, “. . . those who value religious freedom have cause for great concern”. In Mark David Hall, Ph.D.’s dissertation, Did America Have a Christian Founding?, Justice Alito’s concern evincing the war of ideologies now declared, Dr. Hall states ” . . . we ignore at our peril the Founders’ insight that democracy requires a moral people and that faith is an important, if not indispensable, support for morality. Such faith may well flourish best without government support, but it should not have to flourish in the face of government hostility.” The false religions of socialism, liberalism, progressivism, or any ideology not bound entirely by true science and valid history, must not be tolerated. “Tolerance is the enemy of justice”, and true freedom is at stake.


Did America Have a Christian Founding?

Did America Have a Christian Founding?

Mark David Hall, Ph.D.

    . . . we ignore at our peril the Founders’ insight that democracy requires a moral people and that faith is an important, if not indispensable, support for morality. Such faith may well flourish best without government support, but it should not have to flourish in the face of government hostility. – M.D. Hall, 2011

Abstract: Did America have a Christian Founding? This disputed question, far from being only of historical interest, has important implications for how we conceive of the role of religion in the American republic. Mark David Hall begins by considering two popular answers to the query—“Of course not!” and “Absolutely!”—both of which distort the Founders’ views. After showing that Christian ideas were one of the important intellectual influences on the Founders, he discusses three major areas of agreement with respect to religious liberty and church–state relations at the time of the Founding: Religious liberty is a right and must be protected; the national government should not create an established church, and states should have them only if they encourage and assist Christianity; and religion belongs in the public square. In short, while America did not have a Christian Founding in the sense of creating a theocracy, its Founding was deeply shaped by Christian moral truths. More important, it created a regime that was hospitable to Christians, but also to practitioners of other religions.

The role of religion in the American republic has been a source of controversy since the nation’s inception. Debates are particularly fierce when they concern religious liberty and the proper relationship between church and state. Arguments on these questions are often framed in the light of the Founders’ intentions, but unfortunately, their views are often distorted.

Did America have a Christian Founding? Two popular answers to this query—“Of course not!” and “Absolutely!”—both distort the Founders’ views. There is in fact a great deal of evidence that America’s Founders were influenced by Christian ideas, and there are many ways in which the Founders’ views might inform contemporary political and legal controversies.

Two Common but Mistaken Answers

According to those who answer “Of course not!” America’s Founders were guided by secular ideas and self, class, or state interests. These scholars do not deny that the Founders were religious, but they contend that they were mostly deists—i.e., persons who reject many Christian doctrines and who think God does not interfere in the affairs of men and nations.

For instance, historian Frank Lambert writes that “[the] significance of the Enlightenment and Deism for the birth of the American republic, and especially the relationship between church and state within it, can hardly be overstated.” Similarly, University of Chicago law professor Geoffrey Stone avers that “deistic beliefs played a central role in the framing of the American republic” and that the “Founding generation viewed religion, and particularly religion’s relation to government, through an Enlightenment lens that was deeply skeptical of orthodox Christianity.” Virtually identical claims are made by Edwin Gaustad, Steven Waldman, Richard Hughes, Steven Keillor, David Holmes, Brooke Allen, and many others.[1]

In addition to asserting that the Founders were deists, these authors regularly contend that they abandoned their ancestors’ intolerant approach to church–state relations and embraced religious liberty. They often concede that some Founders thought civic authorities should support religion but argue that this is irrelevant as Jefferson’s and Madison’s conviction that there should be a high wall of separation between church and state was written into the Constitution and reinforced by the First Amendment. As we shall see, there are significant problems with this story.

The second answer to this question is offered by popular Christian writers such as Peter Marshall, David Manuel, John Eidsmoe, Tim LaHaye, William J. Federer, David Barton, and Gary DeMar. They contend that not only did America have a Christian Founding, but virtually all of the Founders were devout, orthodox Christians who consciously drew from their religious convictions to answer most political questions.

To support their case, these writers are fond of finding religious quotations from the Founders. The rule seems to be that if a Founder utters anything religious, at any time in his life, he counts as an orthodox or even evangelical Christian Founder. Using this methodology, Tim LaHaye concludes, for instance, that John Adams was “deeply committed to Jesus Christ and the use of Biblical principles in governing the nation,” and George Washington, if he was alive today, “would freely associate with the Bible-believing branch of evangelical Christianity that is having such a positive influence upon our nation.”[2] This approach leads to similarly bad history.

What Exactly Would a Christian Founding Look Like?

In order to answer the question “Did America have a Christian Founding?” properly, we must first understand it. Let us begin by considering what, exactly, would constitute a Christian Founding?

One possibility is simply that the Founders identified themselves as Christians. Clearly, they did. In 1776, every European American, with the exception of about 2,500 Jews, identified himself or herself as a Christian. Moreover, approximately 98 percent of the colonists were Protestants, with the remaining 1.9 percent being Roman Catholics.[3]

But this reality is not particularly interesting. These men and women might have been bad Christians, they may have been Christians significantly influenced by non-Christian ideas, or they may even have been Christians self-consciously attempting to create a secular political order.

Second, we might mean that the Founders were all sincere Christians. Yet sincerity is very difficult for the scholars, or anyone else, to judge. In most cases, the historical record gives us little with which to work. And even if we can determine, say, that a particular Founder was a member, regular attendee, and even officer in a church, it does not necessarily mean he was a sincere Christian. Perhaps he did these things simply because society expected it of him.

Third, we might mean that the Founders were orthodox Christians. In some cases—for example, Samuel Adams, Patrick Henry, John Jay, Roger Sherman, and John Witherspoon—there is abundant evidence that these Founders embraced and articulated orthodox Christian ideas. But the lack of records often makes it difficult to speak with confidence on this issue.

Nevertheless, in light of the many and powerful claims that the Founders were deists, it should be noted that there is virtually no evidence that more than a handful of civic leaders in the Founding era—notably Benjamin Franklin, Ethan Allen, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, and (if we count him as an American) Tom Paine—embraced anything approximating this view. Moreover, a good argument can be made that even these Founders were influenced by Christianity in significant ways—and it certainly does not follow that they desired the strict separation of church and state.[4]

A fourth possibility is that the Founders acted as Christians in their private and/or public lives. Some historians have argued that the Founding cannot be called Christian because some Founders did not join churches, take communion, or remain faithful to their spouses. Moreover, in their public capacity, they did not act in a Christian manner because they did things such as fight an unjust war against England and did not immediately abolish slavery.[5]

In some cases, these critiques do not take into account historical context, such as the difficulty of joining Calvinist churches in 18th century America. In others, they neglect the traditional Christian teaching that even saints sin. If the standard of being a Christian is moral perfection, no one has ever been a Christian. Most egregious, it is profoundly unhistorical to judge the Founders by specific policy outcomes that seem perfectly clear to 21st century Christians.

This is not to say that biblical principles are relativistic, but their applications to specific issues in particular times and places may vary or be unclear. To take a contemporary example, one should be very careful in saying, for instance, that someone is a good Christian politician only if she votes for (or against) tax cuts or national health care.

A final possibility is that the Founders were influenced by Christian ideas. Scholars have spent a great amount of time attempting to discern influence. Book after book has been written about whether the Founders were most influenced by Lockean liberalism, classical republicanism, the Scottish Enlightenment, etc.

I believe that this is the most reasonable way to approach the question “Did America have a Christian Founding?” In doing so, it is important to note that nominal Christians might be influenced by Christian ideas, just as it is possible for an orthodox Christian to be influenced by non-Christian ideas. I believe that an excellent case can be made that Christianity had a profound influence on the Founders.[6]

Before proceeding, I should emphasize that I am not arguing that Christianity was the only significant influence on America’s Founders or that it influenced each Founder in the exact same manner. Clearly there were a variety of different, but often overlapping, intellectual influences in the era.[7] The Founders were also informed by the Anglo–American political–legal tradition and their own political experience, and like all humans, they were motivated to varying degrees by self, class, or state interests. My contention is merely that orthodox Christianity had a very significant influence on America’s Founders and that this influence is often overlooked by students of the American Founding.

What Constitutes America’s Founding?

I have assumed here that America was founded in the late 18th century, but some authors have argued, in the words of Gary DeMar, that our “nation begins not in 1776, but more than one hundred fifty years earlier.”[8] Let us consider three major possibilities that might count as the country’s founding: (1) the establishment of colonial governments in the 17th century, (2) America’s break with Great Britain in the 1770s, and (3) the creation of a new constitutional order in the 1780s and 1790s.

  1. America’s Colonial Origins

Few doubt that Puritans were serious Christians attempting to create, in the words of Massachusetts Governor John Winthrop, “a shining city upon a hill” (a reference to Matthew 5:14). Puritans separated church and state, but they clearly thought the two institutions should work in tandem to support, protect, and promote true Christianity.

Other colonies, however, are often described as being significantly different from those in New England. Historian John Fea, for instance, contends that “the real appeal of Jamestown was economic opportunity and the very real possibility of striking it rich.”[9] It is certainly the case that colonists were attracted to the New World by economic opportunity (in New England as well as in the South), and yet even in the southern colonies the protection and promotion of Christianity was more important than many authors assume. For instance, Virginia’s 1610 legal code begins:

Whereas his Majesty, like himself a most zealous prince, has in his own realms a principal care of true religion and reverence to God and has always strictly commanded his generals and governors, with all his forces wheresoever, to let their ways be, like his ends, for the glory of God….

The first three articles of this text go on to state that the colonists have embarked on a “sacred cause,” to mandate regular church attendance, and to proclaim that anyone who speaks impiously against the Trinity or who blasphemes God’s name will be put to death.[10]

Early colonial laws and constitutions such as the Mayflower Compact, the Fundamental Orders of Connecticut, and Massachusetts Body of Liberties are filled with such language—and in some cases, they incorporate biblical texts wholesale. Perhaps more surprisingly, tolerant, Quaker Pennsylvania was more similar to Puritan New England than many realize. The Charter of Liberties and Frame of Government of the Province of Pennsylvania (1681) begins by making it clear that God has ordained government, and it even quotes Romans 13 to this effect. Article 38 of the document lists “offenses against God” that may be punished by the magistrate, including:

swearing, cursing, lying, profane talking, drunkenness, drinking of healths, obscene words, incest, sodomy…stage-plays, cards, dice, May-games, gamesters, masques, revels, bull-baiting, cock-fighting, bear-baiting, and the like, which excite the people to rudeness, cruelty, looseness, and irreligion….[11]

An extensive survey of early colonial constitutions and laws reveals many similar provisions. As well, at least nine of the 13 colonies had established churches, and all required officeholders to be Christians—or, in some cases, Protestants. Quaker Pennsylvania, for instance, expected officeholders to be “such as possess faith in Jesus Christ.”[12]

If one is to understand the story of the United States of America, it is important to have a proper appreciation for its Christian colonial roots. By almost any measure, colonists of European descent who settled in the New World were serious Christians whose constitutions, laws, and practices reflected the influence of Christianity. Although some authors refer to this “planting” as a “founding,” such a designation is rare among scholars. Instead, most scholars consider America to have been founded in the late 18th century around one of, or some combination of, two major events: the War for Independence and the creation of America’s constitutional order.

  1. The War for Independence

On the surface, the War for American Independence appears to be an inherently un-Christian event. The Apostle Paul, in Romans 13, seems to leave little room for revolution: “Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers. For there is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained by God. Whosoever therefore resists the power, resists the ordinance of God: and they that resist shall receive to themselves damnation.”

Historically, Christian thinkers have taken this and similar biblical passages to prohibit rebellion against civic authorities. However, in the 12th century, some Christian scholars began to allow for the possibility that inferior magistrates might overthrow evil kings. These ideas were developed and significantly expanded by the Protestant Reformers. John Calvin, the most politically conservative of these men, contended that, in some cases, inferior magistrates might resist an ungodly ruler. However, Reformed leaders such as John Knox, George Buchanan, and Samuel Rutherford of Scotland, Stephanus Junius Brutus and Theodore Beza of France, and Christopher Goodman and John Ponet of England argued that inferior magistrates must resist unjust rulers and even permitted or required citizens to do so.

It is worth noting that all of these men wrote before Locke published his Two Treatises of Government and that this tradition was profoundly influential in America. Indeed, between 55 percent and 75 percent of white citizens in this era associated themselves with Calvinist churches, and members of the tradition were significantly overrepresented among American intellectual elites.[13]

The influence of the Reformed political tradition in the Founding era is manifested in a variety of ways, but particularly noteworthy is the almost unanimous support Calvinist clergy offered to American patriots. This was noticed by the other side, as suggested by the Loyalist Peter Oliver, who railed against the “black Regiment, the dissenting Clergy, who took so active a part in the Rebellion.” King George himself reportedly referred to the War for Independence as “a Presbyterian Rebellion.” From the English perspective, British Major Harry Rooke was largely correct when he confiscated a presumably Calvinist book from an American prisoner and remarked that “[i]t is your G-d Damned Religion of this Country that ruins the Country; Damn your religion.”[14]

The Declaration of Independence, the most famous document produced by the Continental Congress during the War for Independence, proclaims: “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” As well, this text references “the laws of nature and of nature’s God” and closes by “appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world” and noting the signers’ “reliance on the protection of divine Providence.” The Founders’ use of Christian rhetoric and arguments becomes even more evident if one looks at other statements of colonial rights and concerns such as the Suffolk Resolves, the Declaration of Rights, and the Declaration of the Causes and Necessity of Taking up Arms—to say nothing of the dozen explicitly Christian calls for prayer, fasting, and thanksgiving issued by the Continental and Confederation Congresses.[15]

Some scholars have argued that the use of “distant” words for God or “vague and generic God-language” like “Nature’s God,” Creator,” and “Providence” in the Declaration and other texts is evidence that the Founders were deists.[16] However, indisputably orthodox Christians regularly used such appellations.

For instance, the Westminster Standards (a classic Reformed confession of faith), both in the original 1647 version and in the 1788 American revision, refer to the deity as “the Supreme Judge,” “the great Creator of all things,” “the first cause,” “righteous judge,” “God the Creator,” and “the supreme Law and King of all the world.” The Standards also regularly reference God’s providence and even proclaim that “[t]he light of nature showeth that there is a God….” Similarly, Isaac Watts, the “father of English Hymnody,” referred to the deity as “nature’s God” in a poem about Psalm 148: 10. Jeffry H. Morrison has argued persuasively that the Declaration’s references to “‘divine Providence’ and ‘the Supreme Judge of the World’ would have been quite acceptable to Reformed Americans in 1776, and conjured up images of the ‘distinctly biblical God’ when they heard or read the Declaration.”[17]

It may be objected that Jefferson, the man who drafted the Declaration, was hardly an orthodox Christian, and that is certainly the case. But this is beside the point. As Jefferson himself pointed out in an 1825 letter, the object of the document was not to “find out new principles, or new arguments…. [I]t was intended to be an expression of the American mind, and to give that expression the proper tone and spirit called for by the occasion. All its authority rests then on the harmonizing sentiments of the day.…”[18] Even though Jefferson believed in a vague, distant deity, when his fellow delegates revised and approved the Declaration, virtually all of them understood “Nature’s God,” “Creator,” and “Providence” to refer to the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob: a God who is active in the affairs of men and nations.

  1. The Creation of America’s Constitutional Order

In light of the above discussion, it is perhaps surprising that the Constitution says little about God or religion. Of course, there are hints that America is a Christian nation (e.g., a pocket veto occurs 10 days after a bill is passed by Congress, Sundays excepted), but these seem to be more than balanced by Article VI’s prohibition of religious tests for federal offices. The only specific mention of God is found in the date the Constitution was written: “in the Year of our Lord 1787.”

What is going on? Some have argued that America began as a Christian country but that the authors of the Constitution recognized that this was not a good thing, and so they created, in the words of Isaac Kramnick and R. Laurence Moore, a “Godless Constitution.” To reinforce this point, the Founders added the First Amendment to the Constitution, which begins “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof….”[19]

On the surface, this is a plausible hypothesis, and a few Founding-era documents such as James Madison’s “Memorial and Remonstrance” (1785) and Thomas Jefferson’s letter to the Danbury Baptists (1802) seem to offer some support for this view. As we shall see, this interpretation of the Founding is inaccurate even with respect to Jefferson and Madison, and if one looks beyond them to the hundreds of men who attended the Federal Convention of 1787, participated in the state ratification conventions, and were elected to the first federal Congress, it becomes completely implausible. These individuals, without exception, called themselves Christians, and a good case can be made that many were influenced by orthodox Christian ideas in important ways.

This argument is made well in broad strokes by Barry Alan Shain in The Myth of American Individualism: The Protestant Origins of American Political Thought. It also receives interesting empirical support from Donald Lutz, who examined 15,000 pamphlets, articles, and books on political subjects published in the late 18th century. His study found that the Bible was cited far more often than any other book, article, or pamphlet. In fact, the Founders referenced the Bible more than all Enlightenment authors combined.[20]

If Shain and Lutz make the argument for Christian influence in broad strokes, others have made it in finer strokes through studies of individual Founders. For instance, I have co-edited four books that collectively shine light on 26 different Founders and several major traditions. These books, along with a number of other articles and books on less famous Founders, demonstrate that there is little evidence that the Founders as a group were deists who desired the separation of church and state.[21]

Before discussing the positive influence of Christian ideas on the American Founders, let me briefly suggest the central reason why the Constitution appears to be “Godless.” Simply put, the Founders were creating a national government for a very few limited purposes—notably those enumerated in Article I, Section 8. There was almost universal agreement that if there was to be legislation on religious or moral matters, it should be done by state and local governments.[22]

In fact, states remained active in this business well into the 20th century. It is true that the last state church was disestablished in 1832, but many states retained religious tests for public office, had laws aimed at restricting vice, required prayer in schools, and so forth. Because the federal government was not to be concerned with these issues, they were not addressed in the Constitution. The First Amendment merely reinforced this understanding with respect to the faith—i.e., Congress has no power to establish a national church or restrict the free exercise of religion.[23]

Even though Christianity is not mentioned in the Constitution or Bill or Rights, the Founders of the American republic were influenced by Christian ideas in significant ways. For example:

  1. Their faith taught them that humans were sinful. As James Madison wrote in Federalist No. 51, “If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external or internal controls on government would be necessary.” This conviction led them to avoid utopian experiments such as those later pursued during the French Revolution and to adopt a constitutional system characterized by separated powers, checks and balances, and federalism. Many Enlightenment thinkers in this era, by way of contrast, tended to favor a strong, centralized government run by experts.[24]
  2. They firmly believed that God ordained moral standards, that legislation should be made in accordance with these standards, and that moral laws took precedence over human laws. This conviction manifests itself in their abstract reflections (e.g., James Wilson’s law lectures, parts of which read like St. Thomas Aquinas’s Summa Theologica) and practical decisions (e.g., all but one Supreme Court Justice prior to John Marshall argued publicly that the Court could strike down an act of Congress if it violated natural law).[25]
  3. Similarly, Christianity informed the Founders’ understanding of substantive concepts such as “liberty.” Barry Shain has identified eight different ways in which the word was used in the 18th century. Only one of these is related to the excessively individualistic way the term is often used today. Instead, the Founders were far more likely to see liberty as the freedom to do what is morally correct, as illustrated by United States Supreme Court Justice James Wilson’s marvelous dictum: “Without liberty, law loses its nature and its name, and becomes oppression. Without law, liberty also loses its nature and its name, and becomes licentiousness.”[26]
  4. America’s Founders believed that humans were created in the imago dei—the image of God. Part of what this means is that humans are reasonable beings. This led them to conclude that we the people (as opposed to the elite) can order our public lives together through politics rather than force. It also helped inform early (and later) American opposition to slavery.[27]
  5. Faith led many Founders to conclude that religious liberty should be extensively protected. Yet many also thought that civic authorities should encourage Christianity and that it is appropriate to use religious language in the public square. By the late 18th century, some Founders were beginning to question the wisdom of religious establishments, primarily because they thought that such establishments hurt true religion. The Founders’ views on these questions have the most immediate and obvious policy and legal implications, so I will address them in some detail.

The Founders on Church and State

In the 1947 Supreme Court decision of Everson v. Board of Education, Justice Wiley Rutledge proclaimed that “no provision of the Constitution is more closely tied to or given content by its generating history than the religious clause of the First Amendment. It is at once the refined product and the terse summation of that history.” Like many jurists and academics since, he proceeded to argue that the Founders intended the First Amendment to create a strict separation of church and state. As evidence, he relied almost solely on statements by Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, most taken out of context and made before or well after the Religion Clauses were drafted.[28]

Yet consideration of a wide range of Founders and their public actions shows that few if any embraced anything approximating modern conceptions of the separation of church and state. Of course, they differed among themselves, but it is possible to identify three major areas of agreement with respect to religious liberty and church–state relations.

Consensus #1: Religious Liberty Is a Right and Must be Protected.

To a person, the Founders were committed to protecting religious liberty. This conviction was usually based upon the theological principle that humans have a duty to worship God as their consciences dictate. A good illustration of this is George Mason’s 1776 draft of Article XVI of Virginia’s Declaration of Rights. It reads:

That as Religion, or the Duty which we owe to our divine and omnipotent Creator, and the Manner of discharging it, can be governed only by Reason and Conviction, not by Force or Violence; and therefore that all Men shou’d enjoy the fullest Toleration in the Exercise of Religion, according to the Dictates of Conscience, unpunished and unrestrained by the Magistrate….

James Madison, in his first significant public act, objected to the use of “toleration” in the article, believing that it implied that religious liberty was a grant from the state that could be revoked at will. The Virginia Convention agreed, and Article XVI was amended to make it clear that “the free exercise of religion” is a right, not a privilege granted by the state.[29]

Mason’s draft of Article XVI was reprinted throughout the states and had an important impact on subsequent state constitutions and the national Bill of Rights. By the end of the Revolutionary era, every state offered significant protection of religious liberty. The federal Constitution of 1787 did not, but only because its supporters believed the national government did not have the delegated power to pass laws interfering with religious belief or practice. In the face of popular outcry, the first Congress proposed and the states ratified a constitutional amendment prohibiting Congress from restricting the free exercise of religion.

Scholars and jurists debate the exact scope of religious liberty protected by the First Amendment. For instance, it is unclear whether the amendment requires religious minorities to be exempted from neutral laws. (For example, does the Free Exercise Clause require Congress to exempt religious pacifists from conscription into the military?) But at a minimum, it prohibits Congress from, in the words of James Madison, compelling “men to worship God in any manner contrary to their conscience.”[30]

Consensus #2: States Should Have Established Churches Only If They Encourage and Assist Christianity.

In 1775, at least nine of the 13 colonies had established churches. Although establishments took a variety of forms, they generally entailed the state providing favorable treatment for one denomination—treatment which often included financial support. Members of religious denominations other than the official established church were usually tolerated, but they were occasionally taxed to support the state church, and some were not permitted to hold civic office.

After independence, most states either disestablished their churches (particularly states where the Church of England was previously established) or moved to a system of “plural” or “multiple” establishments. Under the latter model, citizens were taxed to support their own churches. Although a few Founders challenged establishments of any sort in the name of religious liberty, most arguments were framed in terms of which arrangement would be best for Christianity.

A good illustration of the last point may be found in two petitions from Westmoreland County that arrived at the Virginia General Assembly on the same day regarding Patrick Henry’s 1784 proposal to provide state funds to a variety of churches. The first supported Henry’s bill, arguing, much like public-sector unions today, that state subsidies are necessary to keep salaries high enough to attract the best candidates into the ministry.

Opponents of Henry’s plan disagreed, responding that assessments were against “the spirit of the Gospel,” that “the Holy Author of our Religion” did not require state support, and that Christianity was far purer before “Constantine first established Christianity by human Laws.” Rejecting their fellow petitioners’ arguments that government support was necessary to attract good candidates to the ministry, they argued that clergy should manifest:

that they are inwardly moved by the Holy Ghost to take upon them that Office, that they seek the good of Mankind and not worldly Interest. Let their doctrines be scriptural and their Lives upright. Then shall Religion (if departed) speedily return, and Deism be put to open shame, and its dreaded Consequences removed.[31]

This petition was significantly more popular than James Madison’s now-famous “Memorial and Remonstrance,” another petition written to oppose Henry’s plan. Madison’s memorial has often been referenced to shine light on the First Amendment, and it is regularly treated as a rationalist, secular argument for religious liberty. But, as in the Virginia Declaration, Madison argues that the right to religious liberty is unalienable “because what is here a right towards men, is a duty towards the Creator.” As well, he noted that “ecclesiastical establishments, instead of maintaining the purity and efficacy of Religion, have had a contrary operation” and that “the bill is adverse to the diffusion of the light of Christianity.”[32]

America’s Founders were committed to the idea that religion (by which virtually all of them meant Christianity) was necessary for public happiness and political prosperity. This view was so widespread that James Hutson has called it “the Founders’ syllogism.”[33] The key question with respect to particular establishments at the state level was whether they helped or hurt the faith.

Consensus #3: Religion Belongs in the Public Square.

In 1802, Thomas Jefferson penned a letter to the Danbury Baptist Association in which he famously suggested that the First Amendment created a “wall of separation between Church & State.” This metaphor lay dormant with respect to the Supreme Court’s Establishment Clause jurisprudence until 1947, when Justice Hugo Black seized upon it as the definitive statement of the Founders’ views on church–state relations.[34]

As appealing as the wall metaphor is to contemporary advocates of the strict separation of church and state, it obscures far more than it illuminates. Leaving aside the fact that Jefferson was in Europe when the Constitution and Bill of Rights were written, that the letter was a profoundly political document, and that Jefferson used the metaphor only once in his life, it is not even clear that it sheds useful light upon Jefferson’s views, much less those of his far more traditional colleagues.

Jefferson issued calls for prayer and fasting as governor of Virginia, and in his revision of Virginia’s statutes, he drafted bills stipulating when the governor could appoint “days of public fasting and humiliation, or thanksgiving” and to punish “Disturbers of Religious Worship and Sabbath Breakers.” As a member of the Continental Congress, he proposed that the nation adopt a seal containing the image of Moses “extending his hand over the sea, caus[ing] it to overwhelm Pharaoh,” and the motto “Rebellion to tyrants is obedience to God.” He closed his second inaugural address by encouraging all Americans to join him in seeking “the favor of that Being in whose hands we are, who led our forefathers, as Israel of old….” And two days after completing his letter to the Danbury Baptists, he attended church services in the U.S. Capitol, where he heard John Leland, the great Baptist minister and opponent of religious establishments, preach.[35]

The point is not that Jefferson was a pious man who wanted a union between church and state. His private letters make it clear that he was not an orthodox Christian, and his public arguments and actions demonstrate that he favored a stricter separation between church and state than virtually any other Founder. Yet even Jefferson, at least in his actions, did not attempt to completely remove religion from the public square, and what Jefferson did not completely exclude, most Founders embraced.

This point may be illustrated in a variety of ways, but a particularly useful exercise is to look at the first Congress, the body that crafted the First Amendment. One of Congress’s first acts was to agree to appoint and pay congressional chaplains. Shortly after doing so, it reauthorized the Northwest Ordinance, which held that “Religion, morality, and knowledge being necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind, schools and the means of education shall forever be encouraged.”[36]

More significantly for understanding the First Amendment, on the day after the House approved the final wording of the Bill of Rights, Elias Boudinot, later president of the American Bible Society, proposed that the President recommend a day of public thanksgiving and prayer. In response to objections that such a practice mimicked European customs or should be done by the states, Roger Sherman, according to a contemporary newspaper account:

justified the practice of thanksgiving, on any signal event, not only as a laudable one in itself, but as warranted by a number of precedents in holy writ: for instance, the solemn thanksgivings and rejoicings which took place in the time of Solomon, after the building of the temple, was a case in point. This example, he thought, worthy of Christian imitation on the present occasion; and he would agree with the gentleman who moved the resolution.[37]

The House agreed, as did the Senate, as did the President. The result was George Washington’s famous 1789 Thanksgiving Day Proclamation. The text of his proclamation is worth quoting at some length:

Whereas it is the duty of all Nations to acknowledge the providence of Almighty God, to obey his will, to be grateful for his benefits, and humbly to implore His protection and favor…

I do recommend…the People of these States to the service of that great and glorious Being, who is the beneficent Author of all the good that was, that is, or that will be….

And also that we may then unite in most humbly offering our prayers and supplications to the great Lord and Ruler of Nations and beseech Him to pardon our national and other transgressions, to enable us all, whether in public or private stations, to perform our several and relative duties properly and punctually; to render our national government a blessing to all the People….[38]

Similar proclamations were routinely issued by Presidents Washington, Adams, and Madison. Jefferson, it is true, refused to formally issue such proclamations, yet as Daniel L. Dreisbach has pointed out, he “employed rhetoric in official utterances that, in terms of religious content, was virtually indistinguishable from the traditional thanksgiving day proclamations.”[39]

America’s Founders did not want Congress to establish a national church, and many opposed establishments at the state level as well. Yet they believed, as George Washington declared in his Farewell Address, that of “all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, Religion and morality are indispensable supports.”[40] Moreover, almost without exception, they agreed that civic authorities could promote and encourage Christianity and that it was appropriate for elected officials to make religious arguments in the public square. There was virtually no support for contemporary visions of a separation of church and state that would have political leaders avoid religious language and require public spaces to be stripped of religious symbols.


So did America have a Christian Founding? History is complicated, and we should always be suspicious of simple answers to difficult questions. As we have seen, there is precious little evidence that the Founders were deists, wanted religion excluded from the public square, or desired the strict separation of church and state. On the other hand, they identified themselves as Christians, were influenced in important ways by Christian ideas, and generally thought it appropriate for civic authorities to encourage Christianity.

What do these facts mean for Americans who embrace non-Christian faiths or no faith at all? Although the Founders were profoundly influenced by Christianity, they did not design a constitutional order only for fellow believers. They explicitly prohibited religious tests for federal offices, and they were committed to the proposition that all men and women should be free to worship God (or not) as their consciences dictate.

As evidenced by George Washington’s 1790 letter to a “Hebrew Congregation” in Newport, Rhode Island, the new nation was to be open to a wide array of individuals who were willing to assume the responsibilities of citizenship:

All [citizens] possess alike liberty and conscience and immunities of citizenship. It is now no more that toleration is spoken of, as if it was by the indulgence of one class of people, that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights. For happily the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens, in giving it on all occasions their effectual support.

…May the Children of the Stock of Abraham, who dwell in this land, continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other Inhabitants; while every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree, and there shall be none to make him afraid. May the father of all mercies scatter light and not darkness in our paths, and make us all in our several vocations useful here, and in his own due time and way everlastingly happy.[41]

Yet it does not follow from this openness that Americans should simply forget about their country’s Christian roots. Anyone interested in an accurate account of the nation’s past cannot afford to ignore the important influence of faith on many Americans, from the Puritans to the present day.

Christian ideas underlie some key tenets of America’s constitutional order. For instance, the Founders believed that humans are created in the image of God, which led them to design institutions and laws meant to protect and promote human dignity. Because they were convinced that humans are sinful, they attempted to avoid the concentration of power by framing a national government with carefully enumerated powers. As well, the Founders were committed to liberty, but they never imagined that provisions of the Bill of Rights would be used to protect licentiousness. And they clearly thought moral considerations should inform legislation.

America has drifted from these first principles. We would do well to reconsider the wisdom of these changes.

The Founders believed it permissible for the national and state governments to encourage Christianity, but this may no longer be prudential in our increasingly pluralistic country. Yet the Constitution does not mandate a secular polity, and we should be wary of jurists, politicians, and academics who would strip religion from the public square. We should certainly reject arguments that America’s Founders intended the First Amendment to prohibit neutral programs that support faith-based social service agencies, religious schools, and the like.[42]

Finally, we ignore at our peril the Founders’ insight that democracy requires a moral people and that faith is an important, if not indispensable, support for morality. Such faith may well flourish best without government support, but it should not have to flourish in the face of government hostility.


[1] Frank Lambert, The Founding Fathers and the Place of Religion in America (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2003), p. 161; Geoffrey R. Stone, “The World of the Framers: A Christian Nation?” University of California Law Review, Vol. 56 (October 2008), pp. 7–8; Steven Waldman, Founding Faith: Providence, Politics, and the Birth of Religious Freedom in America (New York: Random House, 2008), p. 193; Richard T. Hughes, Myths America Lives By (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2003), pp. 50–57; Steven J. Keillor, This Rebellious House: American History and the Truth of Christianity (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity, 1996), p. 85; David L. Holmes, The Faiths of the Founding Fathers (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006), pp. 163–164; Brooke Allen, Moral Minority: Our Skeptical Founding Fathers (Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 2006), p. xiii.

[2] Peter Marshall and David Manuel, The Light and the Glory (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Fleming H. Revell, 1977); John Eidsmoe, Christianity and the Constitution: The Faith of Our Founding Fathers (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Book House, 1987); Tim LaHaye, Faith of Our Founding Fathers (Brentwood, Tenn.: Wolgemuth & Hyatt, 1987), pp. 90, 113; William J. Federer, America’s God and Country (Coppell, Tex.: FAME Publishing, 1994); David Barton, Original Intent: The Courts, the Constitution, & Religion, 4th ed. (Aledo, Tex.: Wallbuilder Press, 2005); and Gary DeMar, America’s Christian Heritage (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 2003).

[3] Barry A. Kosmin and Seymour P. Lachman, One Nation Under God: Religion in Contemporary American Society (New York: Harmony Books, 1993), pp. 28–29.

[4] For further discussion, see Mark David Hall, “Faith and the Founders of the American Republic: Distortion and Consensus,” in Faith and Politics: Religion in the Public Square, Proceedings of the Maryville Symposium, Vol. 3, 2010 (Maryville, Tenn.: Maryville College, 2011), pp. 55–79.

[5] See, for instance, Mark A. Noll, Nathan O. Hatch, and George M. Marsden, The Search for Christian America (Westchester, Ill.: Crossway Books, 1983), pp. 19, 53–54, 95–100.

[6] Alan Gibson provides an overview of scholarly attempts to understand the intellectual influences on America’s Founders in Interpreting the Founding: Guide to the Enduring Debates Over the Origins and Foundations of the American Republic (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2006). Like many other scholars, he almost completely neglects the possibility that Christian ideas may have had an important influence in the era.

[7] I discuss ways Christian influence may have interacted with other intellectual traditions, especially Lockean liberalism, in “Vindiciae, Contra Tyrannos: The Influence of the Reformed Tradition on the American Founding,” a paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Political Science Association, Washington, D.C., September 2010. A revised version of the paper will be published as a book chapter with the same title in Daniel L. Dreisbach and Mark David Hall, ed., Faith and the Founders of the American Republic (New York: Oxford University Press, forthcoming).

[8] DeMar, America’s Christian Heritage, p. 13.

[9] John Fea, Was America Founded as a Christian Nation? (Louisville, Ky.: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011), p. 82.

[10] Daniel L. Dreisbach and Mark David Hall, The Sacred Rights of Conscience: Selected Readings on Religious Liberty and Church–State Relations in the American Founding (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund Press, 2009), p. 84. I have modernized spelling and punctuation in all quotations.

[11] Ibid., pp. 86–119.

[12] Ibid., p. 118. Rhode Island, Pennsylvania, Delaware, and New Jersey did not have established churches. New York had establishments in select counties. Most colonies had religious tests for office, and all had laws encouraging and protecting Christianity and Christian morality.

[13] Some scholars argue that Locke’s political philosophy is sharply at odds with earlier Protestant resistance literature, but I believe it is best understood as a logical extension of it. In any case, the American Founders clearly thought Locke’s ideas were compatible with orthodox Christianity. For further discussion, see Hall, “Vindiciae, Contra Tyrannos: The Influence of the Reformed Tradition on the American Founding.” An excellent example of Protestant resistance literature is Stephanus Junius Brutus, Vindiciae, Contra Tyrannos, ed. George Garnett (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994). Sydney E. Ahlstrom, A Religious History of the American People (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1975), Vol. 1, p. 426.

[14] Douglass Adair and John A. Schutz, eds., Peter Oliver’s Origin and Progress of the American Rebellion (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1961), p. 41; Paul Johnson, A History of the American People (New York: HarperCollins, 1997), p. 173; John Leach, “A Journal Kept by John Leach, During His Confinement by the British, In Boston Gaol, in 1775,” The New England Historical and Genealogical Register, Vol.19 (1865), p. 256.

[15] Dreisbach and Hall, Sacred Rights, p. 220. For a discussion of these and other statements of colonial concerns, see Mark David Hall, The Old Puritan and a New Nation: Roger Sherman and the Creation of the American Republic (book mss. under review), chapter 3.

[16] See, for instance, Holmes, Faiths of the Founding Fathers, pp. 47, 65; Fea, Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?, pp. 131–33, 136.

[17] Westminster Standards, 1: 10; 5: 1, 2, 6; 19: 5; 23: 1; 1: 1, 7; 5; and 21: 5. See also The Works of the Late Reverend and Learned Isaac Watts (London, 1753), Vol. 4, p. 356, and The Windham Herald,April 15, 1797, p. 4. Such examples could be multiplied almost indefinitely. Jeffry H. Morrison, “Political Theology in the Declaration of Independence,” paper delivered at a conference on the Declaration of Independence, Princeton University, April 5–6, 2002. I am grateful to Daniel L. Dreisbach for pointing me to the language of the Standards.

[18] Jefferson to Henry Lee, May 8, 1825, in Adrienne Koch and William Peden, eds., The Life and Selected Writings of Thomas Jefferson (New York: Random House, 1993), pp. 656–657.

[19] Isaac Kramnick and R. Laurence Moore, The Godless Constitution: The Case Against Religious Correctness (New York: W.W. Norton, 1996); Dreisbach and Hall, Sacred Rights, p. 433.

[20] Barry Alan Shain, The Myth of American Individualism: The Protestant Origins of American Political Thought (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1994); Donald S. Lutz, “The Relative Influence of European Writers on Late Eighteenth-Century American Political Thought,” American Political Science Review, Vol. 78 (March 1984), pp. 189–197.

[21] Daniel L. Dreisbach, Mark D. Hall, and Jeffry H. Morrison, The Founders on God and Government (Lanham, Md.: Rowman and Littlefield, 2004) (containing essays about George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, John Witherspoon, Benjamin Franklin, James Wilson, George Mason, and Daniel and Charles Carroll); Dreisbach, Hall, and Morrison, The Forgotten Founders on Religion and Public Life (Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 2009) (containing essays about Abigail Adams, Samuel Adams, Oliver Ellsworth, Alexander Hamilton, Patrick Henry, John Jay, Thomas Paine, Edmund Randolph, Benjamin Rush, Roger Sherman, and Mercy Otis Warren); Dreisbach and Hall, Faith and the Founders of the American Republic (containing eight thematic essays and profiles of John Dickinson, Isaac Backus, John Leland, Elias Boudinot, Gouverneur Morris, and John Hancock); Dreisbach and Hall, Sacred Rights (a massive collection of primary source documents on religious liberty and church–state relations in the Founding era). See also John E. O’Connor, William Paterson: Lawyer and Statesman, 1745–1806 (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1986), and Marc M. Arkin, “Regionalism and the Religion Clauses: The Contribution on Fisher Ames,” Buffalo Law Review, Vol.47 (Spring 1999), pp. 763–828.

[22] Even Thomas Jefferson observed: “Certainly, no power to prescribe any religious exercise, or to assume authority in religious disciple, has been delegated to the General [i.e., federal] Government. It must then rest with the States, as far as it can be in any human authority.” Thomas Jefferson to Samuel Miller, January 23, 1808, in Dreisbach and Hall, Sacred Rights, p. 531. The Founders did think legislators should take religion and morality into account when the national government is acting within its enumerated powers. See, for instance, the debates in the first Congress over the assumption of state debts and excise taxes in Documentary History of the First Federal Congress, 14 vols. (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1972–2004), Vol. 10, pp. 568, 581; Vol. 13, pp. 1419–1424; Vol. 14, p. 247.

[23] The U.S. Supreme Court has used the Fourteenth Amendment to apply the First Amendment to state and local governments. For a good discussion of this process and different ways the Court has interpreted the religion clauses, see Henry J. Abraham and Barbara A. Perry, Freedom and the Court: Civil Rights and Civil Liberties in the United States, 7th ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998), pp. 29–91, 221–325.

[24] Barry Alan Shain, “Afterword: Revolutionary-Era Americans: Were They Enlightened or Protestant? Does it Matter?” in Dreisbach, Hall, and Morrison, The Founders on God and Government, pp. 274–277. This characterization of Enlightenment thinkers is truer for members of the Continental or Radical Enlightenment than for those associated with the British and/or Scottish Enlightenment.

[25] Kermit L. Hall and Mark David Hall, eds., Collected Works of James Wilson, 2 vols. (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund Press, 2007), pp. 498–499; Scott Douglas Gerber, ed., In Seriatim: The Early Supreme Court (New York: New York University Press, 1998).

[26] Shain, Myth of American Individualism, pp. 155–319; Hall and Hall, Collected Works of James Wilson, p. 435.

[27] For a good discussion of this issue, see Thomas S. Kidd, God of Liberty: A Religious History of the American Revolution (New York: Basic Books, 2010), pp. 131–146.

[28] Associate Justice Wiley B. Rutledge, in Everson v. Board of Education, 330 U.S. 1, 33 (1947); Mark David Hall, “Jeffersonian Walls and Madisonian Lines: The Supreme Court’s Use of History in Religion Clause Cases,” Oregon Law Review, Vol.85 (2006), pp. 563–614.

[29] Dreisbach and Hall, Sacred Rights, p. 241.

[30] Ibid., p. 427.

[31] Ibid., pp. 307–308.

[32] Ibid., pp. 309–313.

[33] Specifically, the syllogism refers to the connection between virtue and morality, republican institutions, and religion—and by religion the Founders meant some version of Christianity. See James H. Hutson, Religion and the Founding of the American Republic (Washington: Library of Congress, 1998), p. 81.

[34] Dreisbach and Hall, Sacred Rights, pp. 528, 533–534.

[35] Ibid., pp. 251, 229, 530; Daniel L. Dreisbach, Thomas Jefferson and the Wall of Separation Between Church and State (New York: New York University Press, 2002), pp. 21–22.

[36] Dreisbach and Hall, Sacred Rights, pp. 236–238, 441–475.

[37] Documentary History of the First Federal Congress, Vol. 11, pp. 1500–1501.

[38] Dreisbach and Hall, Sacred Rights, pp. 453–454.

[39] Ibid., pp. 215–237, 446–472, 530; Dreisbach, Thomas Jefferson and the Wall of Separation, p. 57.

[40] Dreisbach and Hall, Sacred Rights, p. 468.

[41] Ibid., p. 464. Peter Lillback and Jerry Newcombe identify nine scriptural references in this letter, including one to Micah 4:4 (“while everyone shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree, and there shall be none to make him afraid”), which was Washington’s favorite biblical passage. See Peter Lillback and Jerry Newcombe, George Washington’s Sacred Fire (Bryn Mawr, Pa.: Providence Forum Press, 2006), pp. 321–322. See also George Washington to the Society of Quakers, October 1789, Papers of George Washington: Presidential Series, Vol. 4: September 1789–January 1790, ed. W. W. Abbot (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1993), p. 266, and George Washington to the Roman Catholics of the United States of America, March 15, 1790, in Bruce Frohnen, ed., The American Republic (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund Press, 2002), pp. 70–71.

[42] Such claims were made by dissenting justices in Bowen v. Kendrick, 487 U.S. 589 (1988), and Zelman v. Simmons-Harris, 536 U.S. 639 (2002).

Key Points

  1. While America did not have a Christian Founding in the sense of creating a theocracy, it was deeply shaped by Christian moral truths, and the Founders created a regime that was hospitable to Christians as well as to practitioners of other religions.
  2. To a person, the Founders were committed to protecting religious liberty.
  3. Moreover, almost without exception, they agreed that civic authorities could promote and encourage Christianity and that it was appropriate for elected officials to make religious arguments in the public square.
  4. There was no support among the Founders for contemporary visions of a strict separation of church and state that would have political leaders avoid religious language and require public spaces to be stripped of religious symbols.